All photos courtesy of Kristian Skeie with copyright.
Bihać is a city of 56,000 on the Una River in western Bosnia. At its center stands a 13th-century church that was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans captured the city in 1592 and hastily replaced the bell tower with a minaret. A pedestrian mall leads down from the mosque, lined with cafes and restaurants, and when the weather is mild the outdoor tables are filled with locals drinking strong coffee, smoking, arguing, and surreptitiously offering the stray dogs that pass by scraps from their plates.
Though, like the rest of Bosnia, Bihać suffers from high unemployment, a stagnant economy, and depopulation, it is a city blessed with natural beauty, sun-dappled in the summer and snow-covered in the winter. It is a most unlikely setting for a humanitarian crisis, but the vagaries of geography and international politics have put Bihać, which is less than ten miles from the Croatian border, at the center of a debate over human rights and migration.
This article and accompanying photographs are part of an ongoing project from the field on refugees and migrants by American journalist Matthew Algeo and Norwegian photographer Kristian Skeie. Global Insights Magazine and its non-profit partner Global Geneva Group seek to profile such initiatives of quality journalism in the public interest. If you like what we do, please SUPPORT us.
Thousands of migrants from Central Asia and North Africa have come to western Bosnia over the past three years, hoping to cross the border into Croatia and enter the European Union. But Croatia has closed its border to them, so they’re stuck. The International Organization for Migration has opened several camps in the region, but they can accommodate only a fraction of the migrants.
Croatia: The EU’s bouncer
So, not far from the mosque and the cafes and restaurants in the center of Bihać, hundreds of people, mostly young men from South Asia, are living in abandoned buildings, illegal residents of Bosnia who are unable to cross the E.U. Curtain. In a series of visits to Bihać from summer 2020 to summer 2021, my colleague Kristian Skeie and I met with dozens of migrants, each of whom told a unique story and the same story all at once: the stories of their arduous journeys from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Iran always differed in the particulars — the exact route, the means of travel, the inconveniences and indignities — but always ended the same way. When they tried to cross into Croatia they were turned back without a hearing or an opportunity to apply for residency or asylum, coldly and often violently.
“Croatia is the EU’s bouncer,” a western diplomat in Sarajevo told me. “Their job is to keep them” — the migrants — “out.” If that’s the case, Croatia is carrying out its mandate with brutal efficiency. The Border Violence Monitoring Network has documented hundreds of cases of migrants who were beaten and robbed by Croatian authorities before being dumped back into Bosnia.
Kristian and I found more than 500 teenage boys and young men from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan squatting in an abandoned refrigerator factory in Bihać. Their days are marked by long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer panic and fear. Much of the time is spent playing an improvised game of cricket by throwing rocks at an empty plastic water bottle. But, occasionally, teams of Bosnian police will raid the factory, forcing its denizens to flee into the woods and burning the belongings they left behind. Since they are in Bosnia illegally, the migrants were reluctant to give us their full names.
One, who identified himself only as Amir, said he walked to Bosnia from his home in Pakistan, crossing Iran, Turkey, Greece, North Macedonia, and Serbia — a journey of some 4,000 miles that took nearly a year. “Everyone here want to make a better future in Europe,” Amir said. “And everyone knows the European Union makes — gives everyone — good jobs, good jobs and good camps, and give us some chances to make our future better.”
Going on the game
Migrants call their attempts to cross the border into Croatia “going on the game.” A hundred or more form a group and go over the mountains or ford the river at night. One or two might make it all the way through Croatia to Slovenia, and then into Western Europe. That’s winning the game. The rest will be caught by Croatian police and forcibly returned to Bosnia. That’s losing the game. Amir told us he’d lost the game four times, and was in no hurry to try again.
Many of the migrants told us the Croatian police beat them and steal their money, clothes, and cell phones before pushing them back into Bosnia. Some return wearing nothing but their underpants. A spokesperson for Croatia’s interior ministry denied that police beat and rob the migrants, but many showed us the wounds they said police had inflicted: bruises, welts, lacerations, and broken fingers.
About 40 miles north of Bihać, in the very northwestern-most corner of Bosnia, we found between 200 and 300 migrants from Bangladesh living in a makeshift campground in the middle of a forest. They were cutting down the trees to make logs for cooking and heat, living in small square tents fashioned from large sheets of plastic.
One of the Bangladeshis in the woods, a handsome young man named Ahmed, told us he’d gone on the game three times. Once he made it as far as Trieste, the Italian city just on the other side of the Slovenian border, but he was still forced all the way back to Bosnia, a clear violation of international law.
Police brutality and theft as the EU looks on
“Yes, I went to Italia, Trieste,” he said. “And they catched us. They deported, firstly to Slovenia. Slovenia police deported Croatia. They tortured more and they kept our money, mobile, shoes, everything. Also they tortured more.” Ahmed said he was forced to lay on the ground while police kicked and stomped him. He also said the conditions in this squalid camp in the woods are very difficult. Without electricity, it is impossible for the migrants to charge their phones, cutting off their only link to the outside world and their families back home. “Also, no sanitation properly here,” Ahmed added. “And we cannot find good water. Also we feel many diseases, like diarrhea.”
During the Bosnian War, Bihać was under almost constant siege from 1992 to 1995. Its residents have known suffering, and most have received the migrants, if not warmly, then at least humanely. Some shops accept a scrip that NGOs give the migrants to buy necessities. Some residents deliver food to the squats. But some residents’ patience is beginning to wear thin.
A group has formed to oppose plans to build a migrant camp in the city. Kristian and I met with members of the group, who declined to give us their names but told us the migrants had already received too much charity. They said they’d seen migrants who’d received donated shoes turn around and sell them on the streets for cash. With winter approaching, international aid organizations are warning of a looming humanitarian crisis in western Bosnia.
Vincente Carro is a resident of Spain who came to western Bosnia to work with the NGO No Name Kitchen, which provides food and clothing to migrants. Donations are stored in the attic of the house the group is renting in the town of Velika Kladuša. Since the Croatian police often strip the migrants before returning them to Bosnia, Carro says the need for clothing is acute. “300 boys or 200 boys trying to do the game every day,” he explained.
“And maybe the police catch most of them — they normally catch most of them — 200, 300 boys is coming again. asking for clothes again. And we need to support this. This is the way the donations are very very important. Very important.”
Kristian Skeie is a Norwegian photographer, documentary filmmaker, and educator based in Switzerland. Until recently, he was working for over four years out of Sarajevo. He is a regular contributor to Global Insights Magazine/Global Geneva Group and has produced photo essays on themes such as revisiting post-genocide situations including Srebrenica and the Yazidis in northern Iraq. For more information and projects, see: https://ks-imaging.blogspot.com/
Matthew Algeo is an American author and journalist. He has reported from four continents, and his stories have appeared on some of the most popular public radio programmes in the United States. He is the author of six books, including: Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure and The President is a Sick Man.
The above reporting and photography was supported by No Name Kitchen, an NGO working with migrants, and Compass, a non-profit that helps migrants locally with free clothes, showers, washing of clothes and other support in Sarajevo and Bihac.