Bosnia and Herzegovina

Country Profiles Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Executive summary

Bosnia and Herzegovina, formerly part of Yugoslavia (until 1992), is now a federal parliamentary republic in the Western Balkans, with a capital in Sarajevo and a population in 2018 of 3.32 million (with a growth rate of -0.17%). While the 1992-1995 conflict in the former Yugoslavia led about half of the Bosnian population to leave their country, today the return of those who had fled and the increase in illegal immigration make immigration one of the greatest challenges that Bosnia, at the migratory junction between Eastern and Western Europe, has faced in the post-war period. Since 2015, it has experienced a pronounced increase in the migratory flow. Bosnia is a transit country for those who try to reach the nations of Europe fleeing wars and persecution, especially through neighbouring Croatia, which, for its part, has increased its border controls and refusals of entry. This flow increased further in 2016, following the closure of the Greek and the Republic of (North) Macedonia borders as well as the Balkan route with the entry into force of the Agreement between the European Union and Turkey. In a similar context on the border between Bosnia and Croatia, thousands of refugees find themselves in temporary camps in inhumane conditions. In 2019, with a very limited maximum capacity, about 4,000 people were sleeping in abandoned buildings in the border towns of Bihac and Velika Kladusa or in tents in Vucjak camp, the only refugee camp not run by IOM. Add to this the fact that to date only 42% of the Bosnian refugees who fled the war have returned, with 91,813 people still displaced within national borders, many of whom are still in refugee camps.
In 2019 Bosnia recorded 1.7 million emigrants, making it a third exodus of the population following the two waves due to the war of the 1990s and the country’s subsequent process of privatization. Many difficulties plague the procedures to request political asylum. In the first half of 2019, there were 18,071 new asylum seekers despite short application deadlines and the state’s limited capacity to respond, which in turn impedes procedures: according to the European Commission, Bosnia and Herzegovina has granted international protection to only 17 people since 2008.

Country Profile

Basic information

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a federal parliamentary republic, located in the Western Balkans, and its capital is Sarajevo. It borders Serbia to the east, Montenegro to the southeast and Croatia to the north and west. It has a land area of 51,209 km2, with a single access to the Adriatic Sea: the 20 km coast around the city of Neum. Bosnia and Herzegovina is mainly mountainous and hilly, with the western part crossed by the Dinaric Alps. The climate is continental with frequent and abundant rainfall. Bosnia and Herzegovina was part of Yugoslavia until 1992. After the years of conflict, it became a federal parliamentary republic (composed of two territorial entities and a district belonging to both entities). The size of the population was affected by the war, and there were 3.32 million inhabitants as of 2018. The population growth rate is -0.17%, with a life expectancy at birth of 77 years. Another noteworthy figure is the negative record held by the country: the highest Gini coefficient in Europe (0.56). In 2019, Bosnia had a GDP of USD 14,220 per capita, which shows that impoverishment caused by the war still lingers significantly; it is a major factor in emigration. With the presence of iron and coal underground, Bosnia has small-scale steel, metallurgical, chemical and electronic industries, and a not very productive agriculture sector.

The country’s ethnic makeup is 48% Bosnians (mostly Muslims), 37.1% Serbs (mostly Orthodox Christians), 14.3% Croats (mostly Catholic Christians) and 0.6% other ethnic groups. Sunni Muslims make up 45% of the population, Serbian Orthodox Christians 36%, Roman Catholics 15%, while 1% are Protestants, including Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists and Evangelicals, and finally 3% from other religious communities, including Jews (about 1,000 and mostly located in Sarajevo). Among the consequences of the war is the current distribution of the majority of Orthodox Serbs located in the Republika Srpska of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the majority of Muslims and Catholics in the Federation. Most of the Protestants and other smaller religious communities are in Sarajevo and Banja Luka.

A further distinction between the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska of Bosnia and Herzegovina is in the languages used. The official languages are Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian. Bosnian and Croatian with Latin alphabet and characters are used in the Federation, while Serbian and Bosnian with alphabet and Cyrillic characters are used in the Republika Srpska.

Internal and international migration

Bosnia, located at the migration crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe, registered about 35,700 migrants in 2019, of which 52.4% were women and 47.6% men. While the 1992-1995 conflict in the former Yugoslavia led about half of the Bosnian population to leave their country, today the returnees and the increase in illegal immigration make immigration one of the greatest challenges Bosnia has faced since the war.

Immediately after the conflict, the International Organization for Migration began to deal with the return of refugees from abroad to their homeland. In 2017, following a significant increase in the number of migrants arriving in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the same organization, in collaboration with the state and local and cantonal authorities, launched activities in key areas of migration flows, through operational teams tasked with assisting migrants in vulnerable circumstances, providing them with safe transportation, interpretation services, safe and temporary accommodation, food and other needs.

Since 2015, Bosnia has seen a major increase in the flow of migrants, as a transit country, with waves of migrants trying to reach European nations, especially through neighbouring Croatia. This influx increased further in 2016, following the closure of the Greek and the Republic of (North) Macedonia borders, the tighter borders controls between Serbia, Hungary and Croatia, and the closure of the Balkan route with the entry into force of the Agreement between the European Union and Turkey. The numbers of people coming through Bosnia from Serbia and Montenegro is also due to increased border controls and rejections by Croatia. Some people try to apply for asylum in Bosnia, while others try to reach the European Union by crossing the 900 km border between Bosnia and Croatia.

According to IOM estimates, from 1 January-8 September 2019, 19,266 migrants were registered in Bosnia and Herzegovina, mainly of Syrian, Libyan, Pakistani, Afghan, Palestinian, Iraqi, Iranian, Algerian and Kosovar origin. For the whole of 2018, about 25,000 people had reached the country from Serbia and Montenegro. Most of the migrants are concentrated in the cities of Bihac and Velika Kladusa, in the western part of the country. Close to Bihac and Velika Kladusa, in addition to Cazin and Hadzici, IOM opened four temporary reception centres in 2018, thanks to the support of the Council of Europe Development Bank. However, as these reception centres have a maximum capacity of 3,500, many migrants are forced to sleep outside and risk straying into minefields, as Bosnia is one of the European countries most affected by minefields.

The lack of accommodation also means that many of those who should be considered asylum seekers cannot take up a place of residence on arrival, which is one of the basic requirements for proceeding with their asylum application. Thus, many of those who would like to apply for asylum are unable to fulfil the necessary procedures. Indeed, among the arrivals in 2018, more than 19,900 asylum seekers expressed a willingness to apply, but only 1,314 actually managed to do so.

To date, according to the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, only 42% of the Bosnian refugees who fled the war have returned, while 91,813 people remain displaced within national borders, many of whom still live in refugee camps. In 2019, 737 homes for internally displaced persons were rebuilt through the Regional Housing Programme. Despite this, the goal of providing housing for people currently living in 121 refugee camp by 2020 has yet to be attained.

Emigration and Skilled migration

In 2019, Bosnia recorded 1.7 million emigrants, so much so that there was talk of a third exodus of the population following the two waves attributed to the war of the 1990s and the process of privatisation of the country. Currently, there are at least 2 million people from Bosnia living elsewhere: 56.4% of the population of the country itself. The true numbers might be even higher: Bosnia and Herzegovina itself has no precise data on the number of people leaving the country, since its only statistics come from the Agency for Identification Documents, Registers and Data Exchange, which contains only the data of people who have removed the registration of their place of residence due to emigration. Despite several appeals from NGOs and associations to the authorities, they seem to underestimate the problem and continue to do nothing about this.

Among the reasons for this is the fact that a quarter of a century after the end of the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still plagued by economic uncertainty, corruption and political tensions that have led to unkept promises, which its citizens have increasingly grown tired of. According to the UNSA University of Economics, there are three reasons for people to leave Bosnia: personal reasons, their perception of the socio-economic situation of the country, and the influence that the post-conflict situation still exerts on their lives.

From 2013-2017, 150,000 citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina left their country and just as many left between 2017-2020. In the first months of 2017 alone, about 35,000 people left Bosnia and Herzegovina, which constituted a veritable exodus mainly affecting the Bosanska Posavina region. (Sarajevo is one of the cantons where the phenomenon of emigration is less frequent due to slightly higher standards of living than the rest of the country.) These migrants were mostly destined for Germany, Austria, Sweden and Switzerland. According to data provided by the Agency for Identification Documents, Registers and Data Exchange, in 2016, for example, of the 4,034 people who gave up residence in Bosnia, 1,196 moved to Germany, 895 to Austria, 888 to Croatia, 487 to Serbia, 421 to Slovenia, 63 to Montenegro, 38 to Norway, 36 to the Netherlands and 10 to other countries. The destinations are mostly Western democracies, which is indication of the need that Bosnian citizens feel to see democracy established in their own country.

Nevertheless, this is a diaspora that Bosnia and Herzegovina is not making the most of because it is not monitored. Finally, emigration is directly linked to unemployment, particularly among young people. According to the Balkan barometer of the Regional Cooperation Council, the majority of the population is dissatisfied with their quality of life and 50% are ready to leave the country to go and work abroad where there are opportunities as well as the possibility to plan and dream of a better life in the future, which seems impossible for them in Bosnia.

Forced migration (internally displaced, asylum seekers and refugees)

According to data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the majority of the 2.2 million internally displaced persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina as of 2018 have been in this situation since 1992, i.e. since the beginning of the war. A further 320 were displaced by subsequent disasters. It is expected that, on average, there will be about 14,502 internally
displaced persons caused by natural disasters such as sudden climatic events; more specifically, 771 due to earthquakes and 13,731 due to fires and floods.

When four nations, including neighbouring Croatia, decided to close their borders to incoming migrants in March 2016, Bosnia and Herzegovina unwittingly became an important transit station for those fleeing war and persecution to enter Europe. In 2018, for example, about 40,000 migrants arrived in Bosnia, 7,300 of whom settled in the centre of Bihac in the hope of entering Croatia, the access point to Western Europe. Of these, 20% were children. Then, in 2019, another 20,000 migrants and asylum seekers entered the country, but the violent rejection by Croatia created a blockade at the border, leaving people living in terrible conditions. Against EU conventions, including the Dublin Regulation, Croatia picks up migrants arriving from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan who are following the Balkan route and, instead of proceeding with the appropriate identification process, takes them back across the Bosnian, Slovenian or Serbian border, using extreme force. According to the UNHCR’s statement in August 2018, Croatia had repelled 2,500 migrants to Bosnia during that year. Refoulements were carried out despite the obligations of these states under international law, the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights and the 1951 Geneva Convention.

In a similar context on the border between Bosnia and Croatia, thousands of refugees have found themselves in temporary camps living in inhumane conditions. In 2019, some 4,000 people were sleeping in abandoned buildings in the border towns of Bihac and Velika Kladusa or in tents in Vucjak camp, the only refugee camp not run by IOM. This camp was built on a landfill as a temporary solution located close to areas filled with anti-personnel mines. Moreover, there was a high risk of fire and explosion due to possible underground pockets of methane gas; and there was no electricity, running water and medical care, with very few sanitary facilities. Nevertheless, 800 people were placed there, and thousands were forcibly displaced there by the Bosnian police, thus putting them at risk of infection and disease. These conditions, which characterised the government’s lack of capacity to manage the phenomenon of forced migration, finally led to the closure of the camp in December 2019, with the relocation of 750 migrants near Sarajevo.

Finally, there are also many difficulties in the procedures related to the request for political asylum. Over the first half of 2019, there were 18,071 new political asylum seekers, 5,000 more than in the same period of the previous year; the majority came from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq and Syria. In addition, during the same period, while 17,165 people expressed a willingness to seek political asylum, only 426 actually applied. According to the UNHCR, short deadlines and the limited capacity of the state to process applications hampered asylum procedures. One of the reasons for this is certainly that the state provides only a single official asylum seekers’ centre, located near Sarajevo. According to the European Commission, Bosnia and Herzegovina has granted international protection to only 17 people since 2008.

Victims of human trafficking

According to the US Department of Homeland Security’s Trafficking in Persons report, the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina does not fully meet the minimum standards required for the elimination of human trafficking, although there are ongoing attempts to do so. Few victims of trafficking have been identified and limited attempts have been made to proactively protect and assist victims.

In 2018, victims of trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina were both domestic and from abroad, in particular from Afghanistan, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Sri Lanka. Along with women and girls from European countries, Bosnian women and girls are subjected to sex trafficking through the use of private residences, motels and petrol stations. Bosnian victims are also subject to the exploitation of labour in construction and other sectors outside the country, around Europe: Croatia, France, Serbia, Slovenia and Austria, for example. Thousands of migrants and refugees from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria who are stranded or smuggled into Bosnia are vulnerable to human trafficking, especially women and unaccompanied minors.

The majority of victims of trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina are children. The Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) has called on the authorities to increase their efforts to prevent and combat trafficking in children and to improve the identification of victims and the assistance provided, as well as to monitor the reintegration of children and carry out risk assessments before returning them to their parents.

As regards legislative efforts in this regard, the authorities of each entity deal with trafficking in persons within their territory, while the state authorities deal with international cases. As such, there are different legal provisions for different entities with different sentences. Article 186 of the Penal Code at State level criminalises sex trafficking and labour trafficking only in cases where the victim has been exploited in a country where he or she does not reside or does not have citizenship, with sentences ranging from one to ten years in prison. Articles 210a and 210b of the Criminal Code of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina criminalises such offences with sentences of at least 5 years in prison, while Article 198a of the Criminal Code of the Republika Srpska provides for a minimum sentence of 3 years and, finally, Article 207a of the Brcko District has a minimum sentence of 5 years.

There is, however, a lack of coordination and communication between the cantonal prosecutors, and the actual number of suspects and convicted persons is still very limited. In the period from January-June 2019, for example, according to data provided by the Ministry of Security, 21 potential victims of trafficking were identified, including 17 women and 4 men, 16 adults and 5 minors. Of these, 17 were Bosnian nationals, 2 from Sri Lanka, one from Afghanistan and one from the Republika Srpska.

In addition, six mainly internationally-linked actions have recently been carried out by the state authorities, in which 50 traffickers have been arrested and some 400 migrants and refugees have been identified as victims. These people had paid an average of four thousand euros per person for transportation to the desired destination. In February 2019, according to the report of the State Anti-Trafficking Coordinator in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for the first time in criminal proceedings in the country, compensation was awarded to a victim of human trafficking: a five-year prison sentence for the guilty person and compensation of 7,500 marks to the injured party. Another historic decision was taken by the UN, which ordered Bosnia to compensate a woman who was kidnapped and repeatedly raped by a soldier during the war in the 1990s. It is estimated that during the war in the Balkans about 20,000 women were raped by soldiers.

National legal framework

The legal framework of the semi-presidential republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina is fragmented due to the division of the federal state into separate political administrative entities with a large degree of autonomy and their own governing bodies. The Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina confers limited powers on the State, and all powers not specified in its Constitution fall under the jurisdiction of these entities. Moreover, each of the ten constituent cantons of the Federation has its own Constitution, as is the case for the District of Brcko. This means that a specific legal problem could be regulated by 14 different Constitutions.

Immigration, refugees and political asylum seekers fall within the competences listed in the State Constitution. However, due to the complexity of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s legal system, as well as some shortcomings within it, there is great confusion in this regard, especially now that the country is facing a continuous increase in the number of irregular migrants, many of whom are trafficked. Among the few laws in this regard is the Law on Immigration and Asylum which entered into force, with the collaboration of UNHCR, OHR and the Council of Europe, in 1999, replacing all other relevant legislation. Significant progress in terms of improving the legal framework was achieved with the adoption a few years later of the Law on Movement and Residence of Foreigners and Asylum Seekers at the end of 2003 (Official Gazette of Bosnia and Herzegovina, No. 29/03 and 4/04 and 53/07). Bosnia and Herzegovina also signed and ratified the Convention on the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Additional Protocol in 1993, as well as the Convention concerning the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Finally, in 2015 and 2016, the country adopted a new Law on Foreigners and a new Law on Asylum. Many gaps remain regarding the latter in particular: for example, refugee status must be formally recognised by the Ministry of Security, while those with subsidiary protection do not have the possibility of family reunification or access to travel documents. Moreover, the detention of unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable groups is not prohibited under this law.

In 2016, the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina examined and adopted a new Migration and Asylum Strategy and Action Plan 2016-2020. This document is based on all relevant indicators and factors in the field of migration in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The factors identified include its geostrategic position, observed migration trends, constitutional and legal framework, obligations under international treaties, and policies adopted by the relevant authorities. The plan is based on three principles: legality, in that the state must commit itself to taking effective measures for the country and for migrants in order to combat irregular migration and smuggling of persons; integration, which provides for public awareness raising as well as active participation of the government in order to create an environment for integration; and international cooperation, to ensure dialogue with countries of origin and third countries.

By December 2018, Bosnia and Herzegovina had recognised only 79 refugees and granted subsidiary protection to another 30 persons; no refugee status under the Geneva Convention has been granted since 2014.

With regard to human trafficking, on the other hand, legislation has been introduced and action taken to develop a database on trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to combine the data collected with existing data. Although this crime is already included in the Criminal Code, the UNHCR has urged the country to amend its legislation to reflect international legislation for the protection of victims of trafficking and sexual abuse, especially children. It also called for the prohibition of all forms of human trafficking, in particular child exploitation and forced begging, and for these to be made explicit in relevant legislation. Moreover, since Bosnia and Herzegovina became a member of the Council of Europe in 2003, it is also bound by the recommendations of the Council of Ministers on issues related to human trafficking.

Finally, in order to transit or stay for a limited period of time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a visa is required before arrival at the Bosnian border crossing point; only in exceptional cases as prescribed in the Law on Foreigners, can such a visa be issued by the border police.

To date, the country is making efforts to undertake a number of substantial improvements to its legislative and institutional framework required by the European Commission as a condition for its accession to the European Union. Bosnia and Herzegovina, after having been officially recognized by the European Commission as a potential candidate state, submitted an application for membership on 15 February 2016. On its path towards EU accession, Bosnia and Herzegovina will therefore have to attain the required level of compliance with the accession criteria and, more specifically, with the Copenhagen political criteria, which require the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law, so that the Commission can examine its implementation as part of the 2020 Enlargement Package.

Principal actors

The State

In Bosnia and Herzegovina there is a dedicated Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees which is responsible for all matters related to human rights and fundamental freedoms: from the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms to efforts to fulfil the requirements of the European Convention in view of future accession to the Union. Its tasks also include working with religious communities as well as with the Red Cross of Bosnia and Herzegovina and other humanitarian organisations and the creation of a comprehensive policy on immigration and political asylum, as well as on internally displaced persons. In addition to coordinating the activities of a number of institutions working in this field within the Committee for Refugees and Displaced Persons, the Ministry also cooperates with non-governmental bodies operating in areas that fall within its jurisdiction.
The Ministry also cooperates with the Ministry of Security with regard to the movement and presence of foreigners on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The latter also works in the protection of international and internal borders, as well as in the prevention and detention of human trafficking criminals and related issues.

Catholic Church

Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina has become a new frontier of a Europe with closed borders to those fleeing war and deprivation, with a strong concentration of people in the town of Bihac. There were 23,000 entries in the first seven months of 2019 alone, and people were sleeping on the streets, at train stations and in abandoned houses. It is here that Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina (a member of Caritas Internationalis and Caritas Europa) carries out most of its work with hundreds of volunteers coordinated by experienced staff. With support from Caritas Italiana among others, Caritas does regular collections and provides refugee camps with food, water, clothes, blankets, cleaning accessories, linen, towels, etc. Caritas of Banja Luka, Mostar-Duvno and Trebinje-Marcana are particularly active.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Catholic Church is committed to safeguarding the inter-religious and inter-ethnic character of the country through considerable charitable assistance. In the past, activities focused on basic needs during the war and immediately after its end and those who are today concentrated in refugee camps. Interestingly, considering the ethnic groups and the history of the country, in the Caritas Bosnia-Herzegovina home for the elderly people most of the residents are not Catholics. Caritas employees and collaborators also belong to different population groups and are of different religions. There is a good atmosphere of mutual trust, willingness to help each other and friendly relations in the team.

In 2018, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) provided emergency humanitarian aid responding to the challenges in the reception of migrants, focusing in particular on the north-western part of the country between the towns of Velika Kladusa and Bihac, located on the Bosnian-Croatian border. The project has assisted many children who have no access to any medical assistance and in equally inadequate housing conditions, with very little food, at the mercy of the weather conditions.

International Organizations

Today in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is difficult for NGOs to obtain authorisation to work in the country. The official refugee and refugee camps are managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), with the collaboration of UNHCR.

The Red Cross is also very active in the country, carrying out significant work both at local and national levels, supporting activities aimed at improving the housing conditions of migrants, providing food, hygiene kits, clothes, medical care, preventing human trafficking and offering legal and psycho-social support through legal experts, social workers and cultural mediators.

To improve collaboration and the effectiveness of activities, a Board of Principals has been established at the request of the OHR under the guidance of the High Representative with the task of coordinating the activity of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This Board meets once a week in Sarajevo and has permanent members: OHR, EUFOR, NATO HQ Sarajevo, OSCE, UNHCR, CoE and the European Union. Other members include the World Bank, IMF and UNDP.

Other Organizations

NGOs and volunteers are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain authorisation to work in the area with the highest number of refugees and displaced persons, Vulcjak. After the announcement of the interruption of support to migrants by the organization Aid Brigade Sarajevo, one of the most active in the country despite not yet having official recognition as an NGO, the NGOs operating there include: the Institute for Peace Development Innovation (Ipsia) promoted by the Christian Associations of Italian Workers, No Name Kitchen (NNK) composed of volunteers from various countries, Médicins Sans Frontières and Save the Children. They have all been operational for years, assisting migrants stranded along the Balkan route and in particular in the centers of Velika Kladusa and Bihac. Along the border between Bosnia and Croatia, there are also volunteers from Christian Churches in Switzerland as well as Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation.