At The Brink Of Humanitarian Crisis: Vučjak Migrant Camp, Bosnia and Herzegovina

On 21st October, water distribution and garbage collection were cut at the Vučjak migrant camp in north-western Bosnia and Herzegovina. This action was taken by the Mayor of the north-western city of Bihać to put pressure on central government to re-locate migrants who gather on the border with Croatia. But aid workers from the Red Cross in Bosnia have warned of an impending humanitarian crisis – amid calls to close the camp entirely – and have underscored the potential for conflict that these decisions entail.

“An artificial atmosphere has been created here; it is as if there is no migrant crisis in Bosnia. I am standing here and telling you that there is a crisis and that crisis is escalating”, asserted Šuhret Fazlić, Mayor of Bihać. Fazlić threatened to “let this crisis escalate and […] force organisations and institutions to do their job”. This contrasts starkly with the words of the Red Cross, who intimate that such actions are highly irresponsible, not only increasing tensions within the camp but increasing the danger posed to the five Red Cross representatives who tend it. One such representative, Selam Midzic, predicted that “in the camp itself, migrants will put pressure on the Red Cross representatives, who work here and who have no protection at all”.

But the problem extends beyond the camp itself. Regional officials are stuck in a stalemate with Bosnia’s central government over the number of migrants that they take on – at an imbalance with other regions. The issue has become tangled up in Bosnia’s ethnic tensions, as Bosnian Serbs and Serbia-bordering municipalities refuse to be involved in establishing migrant camps in their regions or allowing migrants into them at all. Despite acknowledging the critical situation in his region and beyond, Fazlić continues to weaponize migrants for his own gain. According to him, the ‘migrant crisis’ that he himself has declared is far less about protecting migrants than it is about defending his own territory from them. His call on ‘organisations and institutions to do their job’ serves to externalise the crisis and ignores the threat his actions pose to the only organisation that is doing its job: The Red Cross.

However, Bosnia’s comparative responsibility for the influx of migrants has largely been inherited from the growing irresponsibility of other states in the region. With European Union member states Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia having shut their borders in 2015 and 2016, migrants continue to move into Bosnia before reaching a standstill at the Bosnia-Croatia border. Whilst 150 migrants continue to arrive in north-western Bosnia every day, those who attempt to leave via the Croatian border are violently pushed back by Croatian police. Those who are injured in such episodes have nowhere to turn, with migrant camps and reception centres at maximum capacity and the Vučjak camp offering little to no medical assistance.

Meanwhile, the EU has also shirked its responsibility, since spending €44 million on the migrant crisis in Bosnia from 2017, including £10 million given to Bosnia this summer to establish new refugee campsites. It remains unclear on what this money was spent. Aid workers at the Vučjak site have received none of this funding. Local officials refuse to allocate an alternative site – one that is not built on an old chemical waste dump or surrounded by land mines from the 1992 to 1995 Bosnian war. Amid this contention, it is easy to lose sight over who it is for: the migrants themselves.

Ali Raza, a Pakistani migrant, speaks for all those who have to face the Vučjak camp when he states “I’m not an animal, I’m human. I’m here the last three months: cameraman coming, human rights coming, but no response. Why?”

Philippa Payne