Refugee children lost in 'black hole' on EU doorstep
More than 20 years after the Balkan wars, Bosnia, a country whose people once fled to seek protection, is struggling to take care of even a small number of refugees from Africa and the Middle East.
Some of them end up in a prison-like detention centre near Sarajevo, where even children, who fled the war in Syria, are being locked up prior to being deported to Croatia or Serbia.
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It is a gross violation of international law, but authorities do not even register how many children have suffered that fate.
Meanwhile, the EU and the UN, who wrote the rules on refugee protection, are doing little to help.
Bosnia lies on the so-called “Balkan route” for migrants coming from Turkey, via Greece, to the EU, but most asylum seekers avoid it due to its mountainous terrain and due to the mines that still lie underfoot from the conflict that tore the small nation away from the former Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1995.
Some people whom EUobserver spoke to, in Greece and in Serbia, also said that the reputation of the Bosnian police, which is considered hostile to refugees, has kept the numbers down.
According to official figures from Bosnia’s security ministry, just 317 people obtained refugee status in Bosnia since 2014.
Fifty one received refugee status this year, but the final figure is expected to reach more than 100 by the time the books are closed on 31 December.
They come mostly from Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Iraq, Moldova, Morocco, Palestine, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
The official number of people seeking asylum this year is higher than in the recent past.
The real number of people in need is probably much higher still, but many Syrians do not register their arrival. Some Syrians, who came to Bosnia to study before the troubles in Syria broke out in 2011, have also simply overstayed their visas.
The numbers are tiny compared to the hundreds of thousands of people who passed through the Western Balkans last year en route to wealthier and better governed countries, such as Germany or Sweden.
Most of those who received refugee status ended up being relocated to other countries, with just 91 of the 317 who got protection since 2014 said to be still in Bosnia.
As much as 60 percent of those who ask for the status also end up moving on before the asylum process is completed.
€15 a month
Those who do get asylum in Bosnia receive just €15 a month to live on. A family of four gets €80 - far too little to pay for essentials.
Most of them live in private accommodation, with just 34 official refugees hosted in a reception centre in Salakovac, near Mostar, in the south of the country.
Those still awaiting their asylum decision are housed in a centre in Sarajevo. Some are transferred to a smaller centre in Delijas, on the slopes of the Bjelasnica mountain,17 kilometres from the capital city, which hosts 22 people.
The Delijas complex - a few small buildings, surrounded by fences, and studded with surveillance cameras - was recently built with EU help.
The nearest village is less than a kilometre away, but that is home to just a few, mostly elderly residents, and has no shops. The nearest shop is five kilometres away.
Two people from Syria whom EUobserver met just outside the Delijas centre had requested asylum, but planned to go to western Europe anyway.
They said they did not know how to find their way from the centre, which is situated high above the snowline, however.
Prior to being sent to Delijas, they had first been taken to a detention centre in Lukavica, also near Sarajevo.
Lukavica is where Bosnian authorities put some people whom they classify as “illegal immigrants”.
“Illegal” migrants are people who try to enter Bosnia without a valid passport.
Police do not differentiate between non-passport holders who are fleeing wars and persecution and those who are on the move for economic reasons.
They push back many of them to Croatia or Serbia, from where they entered Bosnia.
The two Syrians who had been in Lukavica described the facility, which is under the jurisdiction of Bosnia’s security ministry, as a “prison”.
When people arrive there, police confiscate their belongings, including phones, watches, and any documents they had.
The police often neglect to tell potential asylum seekers about their rights or about access to legal aid.
They do not have access to the internet and lose contact with friends and families.
They are allowed to receive one visitor a week, with visits conducted with a police chaperone. They can make phone calls, but police also listen to their phone conversations.
Selma Porobic, a scholar of refugee issues at Sarajevo University, told EUobserver: “We criminalise these people. We keep them in prison, consider them as a threat, and hardly approach them as we should - as human beings”.
Harisa Bacvic, a legal advisor with Vasa Prava (meaning “Your Rights”), a Sarajevo-based NGO whose work includes support for Lukavica inmates, said the conditions there are “humane” and that people rarely stay there for a long time.
Some have been detained for up to 18 months, but most stay between 20 and 90 days. They are then either expelled to Croatia and Serbia, or, if they apply for asylum, sent to Delijas.
The vast majority end up being expelled either because they want to get out of Bosnia to try to reach the EU by another way or because they do not know their rights, however.
Bacvic said: “People in Bosnia, like in all other countries, do have a right to apply for asylum after they enter the country. However, police officers very often do not tell that to them or inform them about any other legal aid they are entitled to”.
He said the fact that Lukavica inmates who apply for asylum are temporarily deprived of freedom of movement contravenes international law.
Your Rights has also raised the alarm about Lukavica’s child prisoners, for instance, by informing the UN agency for refugees, the UNHCR.
The number of children who have gone through the detention centre is not known because Bosnian authorities do not register their status as minors.
“We noticed that relevant authorities are not registering children in this centre. Usually, children are together with parents, and whatever decision is made for the parents, the same applies for children. Even when the decision is expulsion from the country,” Bacvic said.
“We believe this is absolutely illegal. We reported cases to the office of Bosnia and Herzegovina Ombudspersons, the UNHCR, the responsible ministry, and to the Office for Foreigners [an agency of the security ministry]. However, the situation did not change”, he added.
The UNHCR in Bosnia told this website that it “strongly advocates for finding alternative solutions to the detention of all asylum seekers in general, and in particular for children, who, in principle, should never be detained”.
It had no information on the status of children in Bosnia’s migrant centres, however.
Some of the problems are created by lack of resources in the poor and fragile Western Balkan state, such as lack of interpreters to inform migrants of their rights.
Authorities do not try to hide what they are doing.
Taking photos is normally forbidden at Lukavica and Delijas, but the security ministry told EUobserver in an email that “this recommendation is not directed toward the people with the good intentions [journalists] who are doing their job.”
The authorities do make tall claims, however.
Last year, they said they had facilities for 5,000 asylum seekers, even though Bacvic said there was no trace of those.
Sarajevo University’s Porobic also said that attempts to change anti-immigrant attitudes in Bosnia’s law enforcement bodies have not had much of an impact.
Bosnia, in February, applied to join the EU, but the application has so far done little to change the difficult economic and political situation in the country.
The fact that the EU, which has strict rules on migrant rights, closed its Western Balkans last year to contain the flow of people through the region has also undermined its moral authority.
The net result, Porobic said, is that people seeking refuge in Bosnia, end up being lost in a “black hole” of bureaucracy and maladministration on the EU’s doorstep.
This article was independently created by EUobserver's editorial staff and is part of a series about unaccompanied migrant children. Travel and other costs for producing this article was funded in part by the Destination Unknown initiative.