For the past few months, dozens of migrants a day have been streaming into Bosnia, a small impoverished country in the Balkans. The refugees and migrants are crossing Bosnia with the aim of reaching Croatia, the next step on their journey to the European Union. Bosnia says it is overwhelmed and unprepared to deal with this large influx of people and NGOs say they fear the country is on the brink of a “humanitarian crisis.” InfoMigrants met young volunteers who hand out meals to migrants in front of the main train station in Sarajevo, the only food distribution point for migrants in the Bosnian capital.
Every evening, Sadzida, Marco, Owen, Cristina and their friends come to the main station in Sarajevo. The volunteers-- all 20-somethings from all over Europe-- are running a soup kitchen that is used by hundreds of migrants a day.
Each evening, the volunteers set up shop in the station parking lot, which is drab, but big and spacious enough to work as a food distribution point.“We were looking for a big enough space to welcome lots of people,” says one of the volunteers.
They pull up in a tiny white car and start unloading food from the backseat. It’s hard to figure out how such a small car holds so much food.
This Sunday, this small army of volunteers will hand out close to 300 meals*.
Many of the volunteers also work with other small, local associations that help migrants (like Pomoziba), while others work with the IOM (the UN migration agency)."There are not a lot of associations that help migrants in Bosnia-- it’s not like in Greece, for example,” says Sadzida one of the volunteers. "Here, we do what we can with the means we have.”
The set-up is basic. There are no tables. Instead, the volunteers hand out food from the back of the car. The limited space means a limited amount of food-- just one serving per person. It’s not much but better than nothing.
Young, single men from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran
Despite the financial and logistic challenges, the volunteers distribute food every day. Their machine is well-oiled. While several unload the food and cut bread, others hand out silverware and set up several drinking water stations.
They are polite but they make it clear that they are too busy to speak to journalists."There are more and more people and we are struggling to manage,” says Sadzida.
As the volunteers set up, around 200 men are already queuing up. Most are from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran, though there are occasionally men from Morocco and Algeria. Most are young and single. None of them complain and are pretty calm."We do keep an eye on them, because sometimes people start pushing a bit,” says Owen, a British volunteer who is lending a hand for a few weeks.
Around 8pm, dozens of young men flood the parking lot, as if appearing out of thin air. Just a few minutes earlier, the parking lot was practically empty. This is the only food distribution point open to migrants in Sarajevo*.“The volunteers are nice,” says one migrant.“They treat us well,” says another. "Here is better than Greece or Serbia,” a third says. “Here, at least, no one hits us".
Sarajevo, rear operating base for the northern border towns
Jalal, a 26-year-old Moroccan who is “stuck” in Bosnia, is particularly grateful.
"In Serbia, I was sent to prison,” he says. “I also suffered in Greece. Here, the police speak to us nicely as do the people.”
Even so, Jalal doesn’t want to claim asylum in Bosnia. Jalal and most of the other young men there are just passing through Sarajevo on their way to Croatia, the gateway nation to the EU. The Bosnian capital is a bit like the rear operating base for the northern towns of Bihac and Velika Kledusha, where migrants try to cross the border.
After Hungarian and Serbian authorities closed the borders of their respective countries, hundreds of migrants have been taking this new migration route through Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia. They hope to reach Croatia, then Germany and other northern European countries.
"There are many migrants who don’t want to be in Bosnia, but because they get turned away from neighbouring countries, they come back here,” says Owen, the British volunteer. “And those people mix in with the new arrivals".
"In late January, we were handing out about 70 meals every evening in Sarajevo, but now, in June, we are handing out around 200 or 300,” says Sadzida, who adds that the collective runs on private donations. "The state doesn’t do anything. And without the help of the state, it will be very complicated. When the citizens are on the frontline, it’s a serious problem.”
"We don’t have the money to buy tents and the NGOs don’t give them away”
Most of the young migrants seem exhausted. They feel trapped.
"It’s harder and harder,” Jalal says. “I’ve already tried to go to Croatia four times and, each time, I get stopped and sent back here or to Serbia. Jalal says he doesn’t know what to do.
"Last time, the Croatians sent me back to Serbia,” he says. “The police told me that I’d have to pay 50 euros or spend ten days in prison. I didn’t have any money, so I went to prison. When I got out, I went back to Sarajevo”.
Amid, a 16-year-old Afghan, is helping the volunteers pass out bread. Amid is stuck in Bosnia with his parents and has a similar story to Jalal. "We were turned away by the Croatians seven times,” he says, while helping the volunteers hand out bread.
Amid and his parents are currently living at the "House for All" in Sarajevo, a group home for undocumented migrant and refugee families that is run by several different associations. There are around 20 families currently living there."My father says it would be better to return to Greece to find another path to Germany,” Amid says. “I might like to claim asylum here.”
When the volunteers pack up and leave the site around 9:30 pm, the lot empties. It’s hard to know where the migrants will spend the night. Those who aren’t lucky enough to get a spot at the "House for All", which is reserved for families with children, sleep wherever they can-- in abandoned buildings or stations. Some cram together into tiny hotel rooms.
The volunteers can’t do much to help the migrants with accommodation worries.
Ahmad, a young Pakistani man who arrived in Sarajevo a few days ago with about five of his friends, sleeps behind the station, just a few minutes away from where the food is handed out.
They don’t have a roof over their heads or any kind of tent to shelter them from bad weather or cold when, at night, the temperature drops to the 40s.
The six friends sleep together on a platform between two train tracks. They say that they are resting before continuing on to Croatia. From there, they will try to reach Italy.
"We crossed Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia,” Ahmad says. “We’re tired, we don’t have money, certainly not enough to buy tents. The volunteers don’t have money to help us either. They gave us a few blankets, but we have to use them as a mattress. If we don’t, it is too hard on our backs."
*Food is distributed every week day at 10am, 12pm and 8pm in front of the Sarajevo station. At the weekend, the distributions are at noon and 8pm.