Analysis 2018/10: Turbulence in the Balkans, Again: Bosnia and Herzegovina and its Current Migration Crisis

July 24, 2018

Turbulence in the Balkans, Again: Bosnia and Herzegovina and its Current Migration Crisis

Analysis 2018/10: Turbulence in the Balkans, Again: Bosnia and Herzegovina and its Current Migration Crisis

Turbulence in the Balkans, Again: Bosnia and Herzegovina and its Current Migration Crisis



On 17 May 2018, Denis Zvizdic, the chair of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina,[1] stated “the importance of national security in dealing with the current migration crisis in Bosnia”.[2] This major turn in the policy of Bosnia and Herzegovina towards migration comes as a reaction to the security threats the current migration crisis represents to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which became covered by the international media since the month of May 2018. In the migration crisis of 2015, Bosnia and Herzegovina had little to worry about; it was Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia that were affected by the flow.

In terms of migration, Bosnia and Herzegovina has its particularities for more than a reason. First, this country hopes for the return of Bosnian refugees who fled the country in the Bosnian war between 1992 and 1995. Apparently, Bosnia and Herzegovina seems to be committed to the process of implementing a strategy to support the return of Bosnian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their pre-war homes, impeded by the divisions of the government of the different entities, over the return of Bosnian refugees. This process is slow and generates tension. A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2014 about the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina states that despite “a housing project to promote return to pre-war communities… the number of returns declined, with only 104 refugees and 96 internally displaced persons returning to their areas of origin in the first half of 2013 while there were still 103,353 registered IDPs”.[3] Second, Bosnia and Herzegovina, compared to the standards of the Western Balkans, performs poorly in terms of economic development, and, therefore, does not attract economic migration. Third, the major vulnerability of Bosnia and Herzegovina consists in its ethnic division which explains why Bosnian refugees fear the return to mixed ethnic areas in which memories of ethnic cleanings are still alive. Fourth, Bosnia has serious issues of terrorism and jihadism to deal with.[4]

Research on Bosnia and migration in the recent years almost exclusively focused on two topics: first, Bosnian refugees who constitute a transnational diaspora and their postponed return to their homeland while establishing economic and political links with their country of origin[5] and second, Bosnia and Herzegovina is investigated as a source of emigration, amidst economic and political instability.[6] In this paper, we suggest to analyse Bosnia and Herzegovina’s policy towards migration before, during and after the 2015 migration crisis, examining the major tenets of discourse and policy, the causes of becoming a transit country in 2018, and the possible implications and scenarios for the near future in the country, and the Balkans in general.

1.Bosnia and Herzegovina and migrants before 2015

In October 2014, the European Commission rendered its report about the progress of Bosnia and Herzegovina in different matters, including that of migration. The report asserts that Bosnia runs

 “A centre for temporary detention of irregular immigrants, employing 53 staff and with capacity for 120 immigrants. In 2013, a total of 236 foreign nationals were accommodated, a decrease of 48 % in comparison to 2012, when 453 foreigners were accommodated in the centre. In addition, 38 persons were put under surveillance in their place of residence. In all, 277 foreign nationals were returned to their country of origin (159 voluntarily, 117 returned through readmission agreements and one forcefully repatriated… The number of interceptions of attempts to cross the border unlawfully decreased. In 2013, a total of 228 people were intercepted trying to enter or leave the country illegally, compared to 389 in 2012. In the first half of 2014, 87 people were intercepted, a decrease of around 33 % compared to the same period in 2013”.[7]

Thus, before 2015, migration in Bosnia and Herzegovina not only was an insignificant issue, but was entirely under control. The structures operated well, the number of migrants decreased, and an important number of migrants accepted to return home. The report adds that the European Commission was satisfied with the collaboration of Bosnia and Herzegovina which readmitted hundreds of its citizens. In this regard, Bosnia and Herzegovina seemed to be a less attractive country to migrants, and endeavouring successfully to readmit its own returnees who migrated abroad. Considering the economic and political vulnerabilities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was not, however, an easy process. The report by the European Commission states that “difficulties with economic reintegration, access to healthcare, social protection, pensions and the employment of minority returnees are obstacles to sustainable return and local integration”.[8]

The report concludes that “overall, the migration, asylum and international protection system in Bosnia and Herzegovina is functioning and is adequate for current inflows”.[9]

2. Bosnia and Migrants during the 2015 migration crisis

Bosnia was not affected by the migration crisis of 2015 as were its neighbours in the Balkans, mainly Serbia and Croatia. In its 2016 report about Bosnia and Herzegovina, the European Commission stated that

“An increasing trend of people comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina from the high – migratory – risk countries. In 2015 the number was 293 943 individuals, compared with 230 974 in 2014 and 209 490 in 2013, mostly from Turkey and Albania but also from China, India and Afghanistan. 179 people were intercepted while illegally crossing the border in 2015, compared with 189 in 2014 and 228 in 2013. In the first six months of 2016, the Border Police intercepted 97 individuals while illegally crossing the state border, which represents a 30 % increase compared to the same period of 2015”. [10]

That is to say, Bosnia and Herzegovina received flows of people who come legally to the country, but are taken by the European Commission to be candidates for illegal migration. Their number in 2015 was of 293 943 with an increase of almost 90 000 between 2013 and 2015. This seems to be a migratory pressure and likely to have generated as well the migration crisis of 2015 in the Balkans as some of these flows might have continued their way through Serbia to Hungary illegally. The proof that Bosnia and Herzegovina was a backyard for migration through the Balkans is the increasing of interception of people who cross the borders in the 2016, compared to 2015.

As for September 2015, at the heat of the migration crisis, HINA, the Croatian News Agency reported that there “are still no refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina who might come there from Serbia and Montenegro upon their arrival from Turkey and, but that local police ready for refugee spillover”.[11] In March 2018, Bosnian press asked the question whether “we can speak of a migrant crisis in Bosnia or not, as the number of migrants who crossed the borders into Bosnia reached 750 while some 800 were prevented from doing so.”[12] Ljiljana Kokotovic, Associate Protection Officer with the UNHCR, said “not yet”.[13] Peter Van der Auwereart, Western Balkans coordinator at the International Organization for Migration, was categorical that “when over a million people moved en masse through Central Europe in 2015-2016, the small, landlocked country of Bosnia and Herzegovina was never part of what became known as “the Western Balkans route”.[14]

 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina and the current migration crisis (March-July 2018)

In April 2018, many observers, especially the humanitarian organizations operating in Bosnia and Herzegovina warned against the dramatic turn of the migration crisis in this country. For example, Caritas, on 11 April, warned that the “Migrant/refugee situation has intention to escalate to crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.[15] Already in March, media like the AFP news agency announced that “new Balkan route through Bosnia and Herzegovina has opened up for migrants, four years after a crisis in which more than one million people landed on Europe’s shores”.[16]

In March 2018, Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektic stated “that there were currently between 45,000 and 50,000 migrants between Greece and Bosnia, many of whom might try their luck through Bosnia and Herzegovina while according to Nidzara Ahmetasevic, a volunteer working with migrants in Sarajevo, the number of migrants in the country “is at least double” what the official figures show”.[17] An official source, the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina stated that in the period between 1 January and 22 June, “some 7000 people entered illegally the country”.[18] This number, according to the same source, concerns those who applied for asylum, and only for the first semester of 2018 and who entered illegally. Migrants might enter legally Bosnia, and might not need to apply for asylum. A Western diplomatic source asserted that the Bosnian migration route is identical to the “one taken by arms and drugs traffickers, indicating that human smuggling networks have been established”.[19]

The destination of the Bosnian migration route is Croatia and Slovenia, two members of the EU. Bosnia has its resources and setbacks for the smugglers and the migrants. For one side, Bosnia offers entry without visa to holders of passports of Turkey (where Syrians were naturalized by thousands in the recent years) and Russia, which makes arrival to Bosnia easier. For the other side, Bosnia is a mountainous country which makes the trip to the EU countries more difficult.

 a, Causes

 Analysis 2018/10: Turbulence in the Balkans, Again: Bosnia and Herzegovina and its Current Migration Crisis



As shown by this map, the current migration crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina is caused by two types of migrants: the “old migrants” who are directed from Serbia, unable to cross the closed border with Hungary or Croatia (which tightened their border controls with Serbia) and those who come from the South, that is the “new migrants” coming through Albania and Montenegro. Peter Van der Auwereart asserts that Bosnia “is the newest destination for thousands of stranded migrants. They come from Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Algeria, Afghanistan and they are still struggling to continue their journey to Western Europe. They are becoming ever more desperate, trapped within the borders of Balkan countries, falling prey to criminal groups of human traffickers and smugglers”.[21]

The current crisis is, consequently, a continuation of the 2015 migration crisis by other means. This is obvious in the case of the migrants who lost hope in Serbia, and followed the instructions of the smugglers to try the Bosnian option. Others keep coming through the Balkan route, from Greece. Therefore, the main reason of this escalation is the attempt of different groups of smugglers to find other ways to cross the border to Western Europe. After Hungary closed its borders, alternative ways were explored, especially Romania.[22]

Both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia were aware of the large smuggling network operating between the two countries in April 2018. As a result, the two countries conducted a joint operation on Tuesday, 24 April “arresting 11 Croats and one Bosnian nationals, all accused of illegally passing more than 150 migrants from one country to another between December 2017 and April 2018, in the area of Bihać and Velika Kladuša, where there is an ever increasing number of illegal crossings. The smugglers requested sums ranging from 350 to 2800 euros to avoid entry checks in Croatia”.[23]

b, Reactions

In a fragile and weak state such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, decision-making is contested, including on the issue of migration, and reactions are expected to vary. Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Srpska, called the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to close the borders to migrants because “there are no conditions in this entity to take care of migrants.”[24] On 13 May, 2018, the government of Republika Srpska announced that it “categorically refused to receive migrants and refugees. The (Bosnian) vice-president of this entity, Ramiz Salkić, lamented a decision made “only because all migrants are seen as Muslims”. According to Republika Srpska Prime Minister Željka Cvijanović, “50 to 120,000 migrants are currently heading for Bosnia and Herzegovina”.[25]

The Serbs of Bosnia and Herzegovina are not the only opposing side of migration. Armed police in Herzegovina-Neretva Canton, a Southern, Croat-dominated canton of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina “turned back a convoy of buses carrying 270 migrants in Bosnia to Sarajevo Canton, dominated by Muslim Bosniaks, whose special police forces arrived at the scene to secure the migrants”.[26] The Minister of Security of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dragan Mektić, asserted that the cantonal police of Herzegovina-Neretva has “exceeded its powers and carried out a “coup” while Nevenko Herceg, the Prime Minister of The Herzegovina-Neretva Canton, said that the cantonal authorities had not been informed of the arrival of the migrants, and considered the manoeuvre as an attempt of “destabilization”.[27]

Thus, migration could be another dividing line between the Muslim Bosniaks on the one hand and the Croats and the Serbs on the other. In front of this quagmire, official reactions by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Council of Ministers, especially its decision on May 15 2018, indicates a position of crisis management, taking a series of measures in order to “provide more housing, food, and medical care for the migrants”,[28] while aware of the threats of illegal mass migration to security. In addition, Bosnia and Herzegovina suffers from a lack of resources, in a poor economy, to provide these services to large numbers of migrants. Dragan Mektić called for “help from the European Union and other Balkan countries in controlling the influx, declaring Where can we get the money, where?…The route is growing and we could face a crisis.”[29] Unsurprisingly, the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina adopted days later its current realistic decision:

“A more hardline policy to halt illegal migrant flows into the country by strengthening border surveillance. Bosnia will “stop the flow of illegal migrants in every part of its territory that is not an official border crossing”, Prime Minister Denis Zvizdic said. Zvizdic noted that his government had adopted several emergency measures to curb the migration phenomenon, including strengthening border police units with men belonging to other security agencies. Zvizdic added that a statement would be sent to Serbia and Montenegro, countries from which most clandestine migration arrives in the country. The strengthening of Bosnian borders is the main aim of the authorities, Minister for Security Dragan Mektic said, announcing the ‘end of shantytowns’ in Sarajevo’s historic centre.”[30]

4. Scenarios for the future

Two events took place at the end of May 2018 in parallel to the migration crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and have a lot to do with the management of the migration crisis: the EU-Western Balkans summit in Sofia on May 17 and the visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s capital, Sarajevo, on May 20.[31] Each of these events is significant for the migration policy Bosnia and Herzegovina could endorse in the near future.

On the one hand, the EU’s policy towards a possible – although increasingly dubious – enlargement to the six Western Balkans countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo) is much related to the migration issue. Opponents of enlargement to these countries cite, among other arguments, the additional conflicts cross-border disputes caused by migration (knowing that cross-border disputes exist without the issue of migration, but the latter intensifies them). These countries are either sources of migrants or stations in the West-Balkan migration route. The EU-Western Balkans summit in Sofia ended in a very cautious decision illustrated by the French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement that much work was needed before these countries “would be ready for membership”.[32] He confirmed an earlier declaration in April 2018 that he would only support enlargement if the European Union agreed to reform in depth.[33]

On the other hand, a significant part of the new migrants who come to the Western Balkans and enter Bosnia and Herzegovina are coming from Turkey.[34] Turkey maintains the agreement with the EU, which provides economic aid in exchange of controlling migration. However, it is also in the interest of Turkey that its Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan migrants leave Turkey to Europe. Turkey has a double interest in its Middle Eastern migrants: on the one side it aims to use them to obtain a political capital in the Middle Eastern affairs (especially in Syria and Iraq), playing, by the same token, the card of the Great Muslim country open to “refugees”. On the other side, Turkey does not wish to retain these populations on the long run because of the financial burden they put on Turkey, currently facing first signs of an economic crisis.[35]


Four elements emerged in this analysis of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s current migration crisis. First, that the primary cause of this escalation is the quest of smugglers and migrants for an alternative route to that of Serbia (undermined by the Hungarian fence) and the tightening of the Serbian-Croatian borders by Croatia. It is also triggered by new migrants coming from Greece, Albania and Montenegro. Second, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s policy is evolving into a restrictive policy, including control of borders and tapering measures against illegal migration, under the pressure of Croats and Serbs of Bosnia. Third, Turkey’s growing influence in the Western Balkans, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular (favoured by the historical and political ties with the Muslim side),[36] should be taken seriously. Fourth, the EU’s cautious policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the other countries of the Western Balkans, caused by migration (and other matters) indicates an indecisive policy and awareness of the major problems the Western Balkan route represents for Europe.

From the standpoint of Hungary, encouraging Bosnia and Herzegovina to further control borders and tighten its policy towards migration, especially in cooperation with the Serbs and the Croats of Bosnia and Herzegovina, could strengthen its overall policy of migration control in the Western Balkans region. This also would strengthen the enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans. As a consequence, the defence line with mass migration would be pushed South, and more economic and political stability (in addition to security) would protect Hungary’s borders and neighbours from turbulence.

[1] To avoid confusion, Bosnia and Herzegovina is intended to be the country led by The Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the three-member body: one Bosniak, one Croat and one Serb), which nominates The Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia and Herzegovina is formed of two entities: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina also known as the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska. When we intend to mean the Federation of Bosnia and Herzogovina, we will use the whole name.

[2] Bosnia Deploys Police to Border to Stop Migrants (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[3] World Report 2014: Bosnia and Herzegovina (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[4] See the two studies by Migration Research Institute:

Black Banners in the Western Balkans: Jihadis in Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia (last accessed 22-05-2018)

and Az iszlám radikalizmus térnyerése a Nyugat-Balkánon (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[5] See, for example:

Selma Porobić, “Daring ‘Life-Return Projects’ to Post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina”, International Migration 55, 5, 2017, pp. 192-204.

[6] Adnan Efendic, “Emigration Intentions in a Post-Conflict Environment: Evidence from Bosnia and Herzegovin”,  Post-Communist Economies 28, 3, 2016, pp. 335-352.

[7] Bosnia and Herzegovina Report 2015 – European Commission (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[8] 2014 Progress report for Bosnia and Herzegovina accessed 22-05-2018)

[9] 2014 Progress report for Bosnia and Herzegovina accessed 22-05-2018).

[10] Bosnia and Herzegovina Report 2016 – European Commission (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[11] No migrants in Bosnia, local police ready for refugee spillover

Hina English Digest. Sept 16, 2015

[12] Can we speak of a “migrant crisis” in Bosnia? (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[13] Idem.

[14] Peter Van der Auwereart, Mini-Crisis in Bosnia is a Wakeup Call (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[15] Migrant situation and DRR in Bosnia and Herzogovina (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[16] Migrants take new Balkan route through Bosnia (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[17] Idem.

[18] Council of Ministers: 7,000 migrants entered Bosnia in 2018 (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[19] Migrants take new Balkan route through Bosnia (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[20] Migration situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[21] Peter Van der Auwereart, Mini-Crisis in Bosnia is a Wakeup Call (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[22] Shut-Out Balkan Migrants Find Romanian Backdoor to EU accessed 22-05-2018)

[23] Les dernières infos • Réfugiés Balkans : les réfugiés désertent le camp de Salakovac, en Bosnie-Herzégovine (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[24] Dodik calls BiH to close its border for migrants (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[25] Les dernières infos • Réfugiés Balkans : les réfugiés désertent le camp de Salakovac, en Bosnie-Herzégovine (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[26] Rival Bosnian police forces in standoff over migrant transfer (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[27] Les dernières infos • Réfugiés Balkans : les réfugiés désertent le camp de Salakovac, en Bosnie-Herzégovine (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[28] Bosnia Struggles With Thousands Of Migrants On New Route To Western Europe (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[29] Bosnia Struggles With Thousands Of Migrants On New Route To Western Europe (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[30] Bosnian government to crack down on irregular migrants (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[31] Bosnia’s Muslim Presidency Member Receives Erdogan (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[32] EU Leaders Stress Ties To Western Balkans, But Cautious On Enlargement (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[33]Avec Macron, la France contre l’intégration des Balkans dans l’UE ?

(last accessed 22-05-2018)

[34] Bosnia, facing influx of migrants, says will tighten borders (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[35] Turkey Is on the Road to a Severe Economic Crisis (last accessed 22-05-2018)

[36] Kövecsi-Oláh Péter, Történelmi és politikai okokból tart nagyűlést a török elnök boszniában (last accessed 22-05-2018)