At the doorstep of the EU, where thousands of asylum seekers are prevented from journeying onwards, one Afghan family have decided to call a halt and invest their hopes for a new life in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
At the doorstep of the EU, where thousands of asylum seekers are prevented from journeying onwards, one Afghan family has decided to call a halt and invest their hopes for a new life in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“I have given up trying to cross the border (into Croatia). It is too hard,” says Abdul Bashir, 33, who fled war-torn Afghanistan with his wife and three children nine months ago.
“I do not know much about Bosnia but it looks as if it could be a good, safe place for us.”
Abdul, together with his pregnant wife Marjan, 28, son Mohammad Nazir, 7, and two daughters Marzia, 4, and Razia, 2, have applied for protection in Bosnia and Herzegovina and now have “yellow card” status, showing they are in the asylum process.
They are staying in a centre for vulnerable families in what used to be the Hotel Sedra in Cazin municipality, on the banks of the fast-flowing Una River. While they wait for a decision in their case, Abdul, who was a cook back in Afghanistan, works in the kitchens as a voluntary helper to the Red Cross.
“Sometimes I am happy, sometimes I am not,” he says.
The family made five attempts to cross into EU-member Croatia and they are still uncertain about what the future might hold for them in non-EU Bosnia and Herzegovina.
However, with relatively decent accommodation and their yellow cards, they are luckier than over 2,000 migrants and refugees, mostly single men, housed in containers in a bleak former refrigerator factory at Bira. In the absence of state help, UNHCR and its partners — IOM, UNICEF and other NGOs and charities — are doing their best to shelter, feed and support them. The project is funded by the EU.
Many at Bira allege they were beaten on their repeated, failed attempts to cross into Croatia. Going back to where they came from is not an option, they say.
UNHCR takes such allegations very seriously and is working with the responsible authorities to address them. UNHCR sees no contradiction between on the one hand managing borders and on the other, safeguarding the rights of asylum seekers and migrants in line with states’ international obligations.
But from inside the vast, concrete hangar, it is very difficult for them to make asylum applications to the Bosnia and Herzegovina authorities. So far, the authorities do not recognise their temporary shelter as “residence” and without registered residence, they are unable to lodge applications and have their claims evaluated. So they are stuck, with no idea where they might go.
In 2018, 24,000 asylum seekers and migrants arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina, compared with only 755 in 2017, suggesting a new Balkan refugee route had opened up. Despite the significant increase, the number of arrivals is far from the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, when one million people are estimated to have crossed the region. The profile of arrivals has changed, with some people seeking international protection and others moving on in search of better lives and economic opportunities. In 2018, some 90 per cent of the new arrivals expressed an intention to seek asylum in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but only seven per cent managed to do so.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country still recovering from its own war traumas of the 1990s, is seen by asylum seekers and authorities alike as a transit country rather than a place where refugees might settle.
Speaking of the new arrivals, UNHCR public information officer for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dorijan Klasnic, said local people were welcoming but authorities needed to “strengthen the capacity to register and process asylum claims, resolve them in a timely manner and ensure access to services”.
Noting that 1,600 people had registered asylum claims, he said: “It is clear there are a number of people who would see the country as a place of refuge, a place they could call home. But in 2018, Bosnia and Herzegovina did not grant a single refugee status.”
According to UNHCR, the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina need additional donor support in order to improve their response to the general situation and increase their ability to register and process claims.
At Sedra, Abdul lists the things he was looking for when he took his family from the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif and set off with hopes of joining a sister in Germany.
“I left for the sake of my children,” he says. “First and foremost, I wanted peace and human rights, and an education for my kids.”
Faced with the uncertain future for him and his family, Abdul says that they would consider BiH as their new home. But maintains he lacks proper information.
“Right now, I do not know enough about the country. Nobody has explained to me about the economy, how education works or how I might find a place to live…”
UNHCR partner NGO Vaša Prava BiH (Your Rights) gives free legal aid and has told him that after nine months in the asylum process, he will have the right to work. Soon he will reach that benchmark and be able to look for a paid job.