Many young refugees, waiting for the chance to cross the border, live in abandoned buildings outside official camps | Photo: Elena Heatherwick/Save the Children
Many young refugees, waiting for the chance to cross the border, live in abandoned buildings outside official camps | Photo: Elena Heatherwick/Save the Children

Some 500 unaccompanied minors are among the refugees currently staying in camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They are the most vulnerable refugee group in the country, with many traumatized and in need of help.

A group of children, aged between 6 and 8, play on a concrete slab in front of the entrance to the Borici refugee camp near the town of Bihac in northwestern Bosnia.

They don't have any toys, and simply call the game they are playing "game." They form two groups: The "refugees" and the "Croatian policemen." The former try to dash from one side of the concrete slab to the other, while the latter try to prevent them. The "policemen" speak in loud voices, chastise the others, threaten and push them around. They fake blows. In the end, the "policemen" push the "refugees" out of the way — ending the "game."

The children, mostly from Afghan families, imitate what they see in their everyday lives, said Dubravka Vranjanac, head of the Northwest Balkans emergency team for the international humanitarian organization Save the Children. "Game" is what refugees in Bosnia actually call their attempts to cross the border into Croatia and from there on to the west. For years, Croatian police have stopped the refugees and returned them to Bosnia — often using extreme force.

Young refugees on their own

About 1,000 underage refugees currently live in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and about half are here alone, unaccompanied by an adult. The majority are from Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan. For the most part, they are housed in the refugee camps which don't offer separate areas for the minors. They are unprotected and exposed to health hazards, harassment and violence.

About 50 unaccompanied minors don't even have a spot in the camps. They are unregistered, have nowhere safe to sleep and don't receive regular food rations. Still, somehow they make do.

"I have been sleeping in abandoned houses, eating what I get from organizations or locals for the past two months," said Fahad,* 17, who is camping out in Bihac. It's cold in the buildings, he said, adding that those living there build fires "but then we can't breathe because of the smoke."

Fahad and some other unaccompanied minors are waiting for the chance to enter the real "game" — the border to Croatia is not far from Bihac. Some of them have tried to cross more than 10 times, but they said they were tracked down by police and sent back to Bosnia every time with no chance to apply for asylum. EU member state Croatia has been repeatedly criticized for its illegal refugee pushbacks, even in the European Parliament. But nothing has changed.

"We have been sleeping in squats in the city for a month," said Abdul,* a 15-year-old from Afghanistan who camps out in a rundown factory near Bihac with another minor from his hometown. "We tried to cross the border and now aren't allowed to go back to the camps. Every time we go back to the camp they say there is no place for us. People here are cold. We have friends in the camp and they are now warm and happy."

Children treated worse than adults

Unaccompanied minors, the most vulnerable of all refugee groups, are often victims of violence. "The human traffickers treat children worse than adults," said Dubravka Vranjanac. "They transport them in the trunks of car or under the seats." Children often report feeling that their lives are in the hands of the smugglers or their local associates, she said, adding that sexual violence is prevalent. Girls and young women are usually targeted but the organization also lists "17 cases of sexual violence against boys."

Attempting to cross the border can be a traumatic experience, too, said Vranjanac. Recently, in the Sedra refugee center near the town of Cazin in western Bosnia, adults in a family with small children started discussing their next attempt at the "game" when "the kids started to cry and scream, they were really freaking out," she said. "There's a lot of fear."

The situation has become more difficult since a camp on the site of the former Bira factory in Bihac closed in the autumn, with officials saying it was only fit "for summer weather conditions." That camp had a special section with room for 270 unaccompanied minors — at last count there were about 400 there. When Bira was shut down, authorities planned to move the minors to camps further from the border, but most refused because they were afraid they would not be able to come back once weather conditions improved.

In the cold, but close to the border

It's not that there isn't enough space for underage refugees in Bosnia-Herzegovina, said Vranjanac — what's lacking is a functioning system to house them. There are vacancies but they are in places young people don't want to go. They prefer to be near the border, but those camps are full. "That's why many children are on the streets, sleeping in abandoned buildings or in improvised makeshift camps," she said.

These children are not registered, they live outside the system and receive little medical help and support. That is why Save the Children is demanding all young people be registered and receive support wherever they happen to be. At the same time, the EU is expected to stop tolerating the Croatian police force's illegal pushbacks. Unaccompanied underage refugees, said Save the Children, need protection and the chance to get legal refugee status.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is merely a transit country for the refugees who want to continue to the EU, especially to Italy or Germany — returning to their home countries, they say, is simply not an option.

*The names of these individuals have been changed for this article. Save the Children, however, knows their real names.

This article has been translated from German.

Author: Zoran Arbutina

First published: February 1, 2021

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