Bosnia and Herzegovina is a Federal Democratic Republic located in the Balkan Peninsula, Europe. Its political system is complex, reflected in the provisions of the country’s constitution aiming to end ethnic conflicts. In 1992, it declared its independence from former Yugoslavia. Bosnian Serbs, however, reacted to it with armed resistance, entering into war until 1995, when the Dayton Peace Accords were finally signed. Two entities were then created within the territory: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FB&H) and the Republic of Srpska (RS).
Bosnia and Herzegovina is part of the Western Balkan route, which remains the most active migration route to Europe. It has historically been a transit and a migrant sending country. The Bosnian diaspora, amounting to 1,804,991 emigrants recorded abroad, mainly resides in Croatia, Serbia, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, and the United States. Bosnian emigrants are highly-qualified workers, and this represents a brain drain phenomenon for the country.
Regarding immigration, as of mid-year 2020, there were 36,042 migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1.09% of the country’s population). Most of them came from neighbouring southeastern European countries and former Yugoslavian republics: Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovakia, North Macedonia, and Slovenia. Due to labour force shortages in a variety of Bosnian economic sectors, in 2022 the government announced a substantial increase in the number of work permits issued to foreigners. Because of its geographical location, the country has also become a transit point and temporary home for refugees. In 2022, 349 persons with refugee status and 134 asylum seekers were recorded in Bosnia. They mainly came from Ukraine, Serbia, Kosovo, Turkey, Syria, and Afghanistan. Furthermore, 96,305 internally displaced persons were registered after the 1992-1995 war. In 2021, 314 internal displacements were also recorded in the country, because of flood-related climate disasters.
The war in 1992 destroyed the country’s economy, causing production to plummet by 80% and unemployment to soar. Bosnia has been recovering since then, but official data confirming that is not available. There is a big percentage of irregular economy. In 2015, the FB&H and the RS developed a joint program of structural reforms to combat the economic challenges in investment and development of the private sector. In 2021, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s GDP amounted to US$ 23,365,361,640, experiencing an annual growth rate of 7.5%, compared to a -3.1% decrease in the previous year. The inflation rate in 2021 was 2% of the GDP. Moreover, foreign direct investment represented 2.7% of Bosnia’s GDP.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is located in the Balkan Peninsula, sharing borders with Croatia (north and west), Serbia (east), and Montenegro (east and south). The Neum Strip allows the country to have access to the Adriatic Sea. It has a mountainous terrain crisscrossed by rivers. The country is geographically divided into two regions: Bosnia (northern central and northern sections) and Herzegovina (southern part). It is administratively divided into the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (in turn divided into ten cantons), the Republika Srpska, and the District of Brcko.
It has an area of 51,200 sq. km and a population of 3,216,744. Sarajevo is the capital and largest city. Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian are the official languages. Other languages include Bulgarian, Italian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and German. Concerning religion, around 50% of the population is Muslim, followed by Orthodox (about 30%), Catholic (nearly 15%), and others (roughly 3%). There are three ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats.
II. International and Internal Migration
According to the UN International Migrant Stock estimates, as of mid-year 2020, there were 36,042 migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1.09% of the country’s population). Previously, in 1990 there were 56,000 immigrants (1.25% of the country’s population at the time) reaching in 2000 82,952 people (1.98% of the whole population). Since then, their number has been decreasing. As of 2020, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s migrant stock was 46.83% male and 53.17% female. Their main countries of origin were Croatia (11,956 people, 33.17% of the stock), Serbia (9,550 people, 26.5% of the stock), Montenegro (4,108 people, 11.4% of the stock), Slovakia (3,165 people, 8.78 of the stock), North Macedonia (2,875 people, 7.98% of the stock), and Slovenia (1,831 people, 5.08% of the stock). In Bosnia and Herzegovina most migrants arrive from neighbouring southeastern European countries, mostly former Yugoslavian republics.
The number of foreigners allowed each year to legally move into the territory has been fairly reduced. In 2020, the number of visas, temporary and permanent residence permits newly granted to foreign nationals were respectively 1,857, 8,293, and 312. Those figures showed a drastic drop of 96%, 18%, and 60% in comparison with the previous year’s. The number of work permits was already small in 2019 and experienced a further decrease in 2020, going from 3,189 to 2,586. The most common countries of origin of those migrant workers were Serbia, Turkey, Kuwait, Croatia, and the PRC.
Nonetheless, a variety of Bosnian economic sectors consistently is experiencing labour force shortages, making such strict regulation of foreign workers’ access to the country ineffective. That structural situation has led both the BiH Federation and the Republic Srpska’s employers’ organisations to push for a substantial increase of work permits issued to foreigners. In November 2022, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Council of Ministers announced the official approval of that increase, thus a significant growth in the amount of work-related entries into the country is expected for the most immediate future.
Regarding internal migration, it looks like that there are no significant population movements between the two primary national entities forming the modern Bosnia and Herzegovina state; in fact, the amount of people transferring from one area to the other is very small. In 2021, only 2,550 people transferred from the BiH Federation to the Republic Srpska, while 2,179 people moved from the Republic Srpska to the BiH Federation. In 2022, there were 2,604 people from the BiH Federation who went to the Republic Srpska, and 2,379 in the opposite direction. Moreover, in the last two years, there were 200-300 people transferring from the multi-ethnic Brčko District to any of the two national entities, and vice versa. Among those internal migrants, young adults between 20 and 39 years were up 44.8%; women were 59.2%, while men 40.8%.
In addition to that limited number of movements between national entities, a pattern of rural-to-urban migration is also present. Around 1% of the country’s population seems to move every year into large cities like Sarajevo, Baja Luka, or Tuzla, coming from the rural areas (or small towns) surrounding them. The main pushing factor behind that trend seems to be the great availability of job opportunities in cities. As far as Sarajevo, for instance, up to 10% of all city-jobs are held by internal migrants.
III. Emigration and Skilled Migration
There is no recent official data available from the government regarding the number of citizens living abroad. The Agency for Identification Documents, Registers and Data Exchange only includes those nationals who have removed from the country’s register their residence due to emigration.
The Bosnian diaspora, amounting to 1,804,991 emigrants recorded abroad, mainly resides in Croatia, Serbia, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, and the United States. It is considered to be the second-largest diaspora in the world after Guyana; in fact, in 2020 about 34% of its population was living abroad. It is estimated that the actual number of emigrants coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina varies from 2 to 2.2 million people. In addition to already established migrating trends to Germany, Austria, and Slovenia, in recent years emigrants have also chosen other destinations to move to, like Sweden, Norway, and Finland.
Labour emigration coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina into the EU has constantly been increasing for years. The number of first residence permits in EU Member States granted to Bosnians rose steadily from 11,506 in 2011 to 56,363 in 2019. However, in 2020, it decreased to 35,158 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The leading destination countries are Germany and Austria, hosting respectively 20% and 19% of the Bosnian migrants living in OECD countries. Other destination countries were Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia. That year, 3,489 citizens removed their residence from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s register.
Bosnian emigrants are highly-qualified workers. In 2020 the female percentage was slightly higher (51.4% according to UN DESA), and 46% of them were under 35 years old. The main push factors were the socioeconomic situation of the country, personal reasons, and the post-conflict challenges the country was still facing. High emigration exacerbates the lack of qualified labour. Brain drain has also been affecting the country with many qualified and mobile workers looking for better job opportunities abroad.
Remittances in 2021 amounted to US$ 2,374,467,960, representing 10.2% of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s GDP.
IV. Forced Migrants (Internally Displaced Persons, Asylum Seekers, Refugees, and Climate Displaced Persons)
In 2022, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 349 persons with refugee status and 134 asylum seekers were registered. They mostly came from Ukraine (67.05%), Serbia and Kosovo (10.32%), Turkey (9.74%), Syria (7.16%), and Afghanistan (1.43%).
Bosnia and Herzegovina is part of the Western Balkan route, which remains the most active migration route to get to Europe. The Balkan route started making headlines in 2015, during the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ when thousands of people coming from the Middle East and Africa tried to reach Europe. However, following the 2016 EU’s agreement with Turkey, the route was officially closed. At the same time, Hungary increased security measures on its border. As a result, people seeking refuge in Europe found a new route to the EU via Bosnia and Herzegovina, either coming from Serbia or Albania, and then through Montenegro. Therefore, until February 2023, 3,771 new arrivals were recorded in the Balkan Route, and 934 were registered in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They mainly came from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Iran, and Morocco.
The Lipa region of Bosnia has also become a transit point, a temporary location for refugees trying to reach Europe. Following the closure of the Lupa camp, makeshift camps have been set up to host those stranded in this part of Bosnia. However, these camps lack electricity and water, some of the tents are in poor condition, and water is pouring in.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s legislation recognises asylum applications, and the government has already set up a system to provide protection to refugees. Asylum seekers with pending applications are entitled to accommodation in the asylum centre until the Ministry of Security makes a final and binding decision for them. The two centres specifically designated to house asylum seekers are the Asylum Centre in Delijas and the Refugee Reception Centre in Salakovac. Nevertheless, these centres are under-utilised, with most asylum seekers and migrants currently residing in four temporary reception centres run by the Foreign Affairs Service in Sarajevo (Usivak and Blazuj) and the Una-Sana cantons (Borici and Lipa).
Asylum seekers have the right to legally live in BiH until a final decision is taken to their application, have the right to accommodation in one of the centres specific for them, can work, and have access to primary health care, education, free legal aid, and other basic needs, like food, and psychosocial assistance. Currently, most reception centres are overcrowded. Likewise, people trying to cross the Croatian border face refoulement to Bosnia. On some occasions, migrants and refugees have experienced opposition and rejection from the local population who are not willing to accept more people into the country.
For refugees fleeing Ukraine, the BiH authorities have not established a Temporary Protection System in line with the EU. Most Ukrainians have already applied for a temporary stay on humanitarian grounds; but they do not have access to any rights, like employment, medical care, or education.
Furthermore, 96,305 internally displaced persons were registered in 2022, after the 1992-1995 war. There are currently 35 collective accommodation centres throughout the country occupied by IDPs awaiting a permanent housing solution. Initially, these centres were intended to be only temporary, but a significant number of IDPs have been living in them for more than 20 years. Finally, 314 internal displacements caused by flood-related climate disasters were also recorded in 2021.
V. Victims of Human Trafficking
Bosnia and Herzegovina is Tier 2 in the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report, since it does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; but it is making significant efforts to do so. In 2020, traffickers exploited foreign victims, mainly coming from North Macedonia and Pakistan. In previous years, victims from Afghanistan, Gambia, Cuba, Libya, Sri Lanka, Serbia, and other neighbouring Balkan countries were also exploited in the country. Bosnian women and girls are victims of sex trafficking in private residences and motels. Nationals are also exposed to forced labour in construction and other sectors in neighbouring Balkan countries. Romani children are exploited in criminal activities, are forced into begging, sex trafficking, and domestic servitude linked to forced marriages. Likewise, thousands of migrants and refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, and neighbouring countries travelling or being smuggled through the country are at risk of trafficking (especially women and unaccompanied children). According to the 2022 report of the European Union, Roma is the most vulnerable minority in the country, with a higher risk of being subject to human trafficking.
In 2021, the State Prosecutor’s Office initiated two investigations of two suspects and prosecuted two defendants. State courts convicted one trafficker to one-year imprisonment. Federation authorities investigated 16 suspects and prosecuted 11 of them. Moreover, federation judges charged four traffickers with sentences ranging from 21 months to 8 years in prison. RS authorities investigated two suspects, prosecuted one defendant, and RS courts convicted two traffickers. Finally, Brcko District (BD) authorities investigated three suspects, prosecuted three defendants and convicted one trafficker.
This year, the government trained Border Police and staff from the Service for Foreign Affairs on victim identification with irregular migration flows. As a result, authorities identified four victims in the reception centre of Blazuj. In 2020, the government partly funded five NGO-run shelters through a victim protection fund with 130,000 convertible marks. It further updated standard operating procedures for victim identification. Victims could access accommodation, psycho-social support, medical and legal assistance at shelters. However, there were no services for victims available outside the shelters. It continued to implement the 2020-2023 national strategy. The Federation, RS, BD, and all ten cantons adopted their action plans, and two cantons approved and disbursed honorariums for each member of the local coordinating teams. Furthermore, in 2021, the government conducted an awareness campaign targeting children, students, and the public.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been delays in courts. Victims have spent multiple years in shelters due to slow court proceedings and a lack of reintegration opportunities in the country. The government also penalised victims for unlawful acts traffickers forced them to commit due to inadequate identification efforts. Local authorities did not develop any program to reduce demand for commercial sex and lacked resources to adequately inspect recruitment agencies. Finally, they did not investigate cases of potential forced child begging and labour involving Roma.
VI. National Legal Framework
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is a Democratic Republic with a bicameral parliament. The country has laws at the state level, entity laws, laws of the BiH Federation, laws pertaining to the Republic of Srpska (RS), laws of the Brcko District (BD) of BiH, and laws at the cantonal level.
The Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Law on Citizenship determine the conditions for the acquisition and loss of citizenship in the country. The Law on Movement and Stay of Aliens and Asylum, amended by the 2015 Law of Aliens, regulates conditions and procedures for the entry of foreigners, including the visa and non‐visa regime, travel documents, stay of foreigners, their removal from the country, their admission and placement under supervision, international and temporary protection in case of a mass influx of foreigners.
The Law on Asylum provides asylum seekers the right to adequate reception conditions, with respect to accommodation, food, basic health care, primary and secondary education, as well as free legal aid, and psycho-social support.
Since 1993, Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a Party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, by succession. Since 1993, BiH has also been a Party to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, by succession.
Article 186 of the state-level Criminal Code criminalises sex and labour trafficking. Articles 210a and 210b of the Federation’s Criminal Code also prosecute sex and labour trafficking. Furthermore, article 145 of RS’s Criminal Code criminalises sex and labour trafficking, and prescribes a minimum penalty of three years imprisonment. Article 207a of BD’s also prosecutes these offences as well.
Bosnia and Herzegovina signed and ratified the ILO Migrant for Employment Convention and its Protocol, as well as the ILO Forced Labour Convention. It also ratified the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Finally, Bosnia signed and ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.
VII. Main Actors
The Central Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina is responsible for foreign policy, foreign trade policy, and immigration, refugee, and asylum policy regulation. The Ministry of Security (MoS) is responsible for the creation, maintenance, and implementation of immigration and asylum policy in the country. MoS issues decisions on applications filed by asylum seekers in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees is responsible for the policy of immigration and asylum, the implementation of international conventions on human rights and fundamental freedoms, designing and implementing activities to meet obligations concerning accession to Euro-Atlantic integration, and cooperation with religious and national minorities communities. The Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees takes care of asylum issues and the rights of refugees.
At a regional level, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina has exclusive responsibility in the field of citizenship within the Federation. The Federation and Cantons share responsibilities in the implementation of laws and regulations concerning citizenship and issuing passports of citizens of BiH coming from the Federation territory, and on foreigners’ stay and movement. The Federal Ministry of Displaced Persons and Refugees oversees gathering and processing data on refugees and displaced persons, the construction of housing units to accommodate refugees and displaced persons, and runs regional centres to assist immigrants and asylum seekers.
The Ministry of Refugees and Displaced Persons of RS handles the protection and provision of alternative accommodation for refugees, displaced persons, and returnees, as well as the construction, operation, and maintenance of facilities and housing and the protection of displaced persons, refugees, and returnees. The Ministry of Refugees and Displaced Persons looks after the implementation of a re-socialisation program for socially vulnerable refugees, displaced persons and returnees, and coordinates with another state, federal institutions and international organisations the implementation of programmes for the social reintegration of refugees and displaced persons.
Cantons have competence in the field of police and control forces. The Border Police manages official border crossings, patrols the border and potential places of irregular crossings into the country, and escorts refugees asking for asylum to the closest Service for Foreigners’ Affairs Office to register their intent to seek asylum and obtain an Attestation of Expressed Intent to Seek Asylum.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, UNHCR supports the government in improving policies and services that affect the lives of asylum seekers and refugees. Where necessary, UNHCR also helps local authorities to address gaps in the system covering basic needs of asylum-seekers and refugees. In some instances, UNHCR provides aid for needs related to shelter, water, sanitation, food, basic household items, health, education, information provision, coordination, and site management.
IOM is also working to address migrant needs, including accommodation, shelter, transportation, food and non-food items, water and sanitation, psychosocial support, assisted voluntary return and reintegration. IOM assists the BiH government in combating human trafficking crimes through capacity building, awareness raising, and support for the development of policy guidelines to improve the identification, protection and assistance of victims of trafficking.
UNICEF is the main humanitarian agency for Child Protection and Education in BiH. The Child-Friendly Spaces and the Mother and Baby Corners in the Reception Centres of Salakovak, Usivak, Borici, Bira, Sedra and Velika provide children with opportunities to develop, play, learn, and strengthen their resilience, as well as access to psychosocial support. In addition, it provides information and awareness raising on breastfeeding and hygiene to families. UNICEF offers protection services to unaccompanied and separated migrant children, children at risk or victims of violence, abuse and exploitation. The agency also supports the enrolment of refugee and migrant children into public schools and provides access to paediatric help and access to immunisation of children.
The Red Cross offers food, first aid, psychosocial support and basic supplies for subsistence. The Family Links Network of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies and the International Committee of Red Cross help to locate family members and restore communication with them. The government also cooperates with the Red Cross, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other humanitarian organisations.
NGOs and Other Organisations
The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) is a prominent global NGO attending to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers. It re-established its presence in 2018 to help the increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers using Bosnia and Herzegovina as a transit country in the so-called Western Balkan route. That includes lines of work such as: providing holistic mental health and psychosocial assistance to asylum-seekers, refugees, and migrants; implementing standard-protection mechanisms for beneficiaries in reception facilities; or displaying systematic monitoring of the land border between Bosnian and Croatian territories, in order to witness and denounce any violation of the basic rights of the displaced populations crossing there.
CARE is also a global NGO, focusing on fighting poverty and building social justice. It established its presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992. Nowadays, its work in the country aims at ensuring “that the social, economic, and political rights of vulnerable and marginalised groups are recognised and fulfilled, contributing to sustainable peace in the region.” Among other things, this includes giving emergency assistance to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants using Bosnia and other Balkan countries as transit countries.
The Bosnia and Herzegovina Women’s Initiative (BHWI) is a local NGO working as a UNHCR partner on Bosnian territory in matters regarding the assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other similar vulnerable displaced groups. This organisation operates in refugee reception centres all over the country, such as the Salakovac Refugee Reception Centre, the Delijaš Asylum Centre, the Ušivak Transit/Reception Centre, and the Sarajevo UNHCR information Centre. Some of the support they provide to refugees and asylum seekers comes in the form of psychosocial services, assistance in accessing official services and institutions (including interpretation and transportation), and leisure activities.
Another local NGO specialising in supporting vulnerable displaced populations and acting as a UNHCR partner in Bosnian territory is Vaša Prava BiH (VP). Their activities are more focused on legal aid, encompassing lines of work such as providing free-of-charge legal advice and services for the asylum procedure in Bosnia and Herzegovina; offering information on rights and obligations; giving assistance throughout the process of accessing Bosnian justice system without discrimination; and also helping in the communication with local authorities, when needed. VP’s staff operate in a wide variety of centres all around the country, including the Salakovac Refugee Reception Centre; the Delijaš Asylum Centre; the Ušivak Transit/Reception Centre; the Sarajevo UNHCR’s information centre; or VP’s own field offices in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Tuzla, or Srebrenica.
The Catholic Church
Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina is an organisation that has developed and diversified its services to better respond to the country’s challenges. These include poverty and social exclusion, unemployment, social injustice, human trafficking, natural disasters, migration, and refugee issues.
National and diocesan Caritas organisations in Bosnia and Herzegovina have provided support in the Sarajevo Canton and Tuzla (Caritas Archdiocese Vrhbosna), in the Una Sana Canton (Caritas Banja Luka), and the Herzegovina Neretva Canton (Caritas Dioceses of Mostar-Duvno and Trebinje-Mrkan).
Caritas also cared for thousands of people in the asylum centre in Delijaš (near Sarajevo) and the reception centre in Salakovac (near Mostar), as well as for displaced people living in squats around Sarajevo. All of these people received food, and the priority group was children. Caritas also aided in the Bira refugee camp in Bihać before it was closed. It worked in the Ušivak camp in Hadžići and on the streets of Tuzla. In these places, it focused on distributing hygiene kits and providing access to Caritas laundry services.
To improve living conditions in the reception centre in Salakovac and the asylum centre in Delijaš, Caritas provided washing machines, boilers, refrigerators, cookers, as well as bed linens to enhance hygiene housing, prevent diseases, and ensure food preparation for people living in the facilities. At the reception centre in Salakovac, an ambulance equipped to provide health care services was also made available.
Another project implemented by Caritas is the social coffee in Salakovac and Delijaš, where the residents of the centre use it as a meeting place and attend workshops for psychosocial support.
The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) works in six official camps, aiding and responding to the needs of refugees being accommodated there. The aim is to provide all camp users with translation services to assist them in their asylum application process and to give information regarding services available to them. They have also set up projects aimed at providing access to education for children, as well as adapting to their needs (language, educational level).
The Order of Malta in Bosnia and Herzegovina collaborates with Caritas and has earmarked funds to help children in the Ušivak camp. The Order of Malta’s aid provides packages containing baby formula, medical and pharmaceutical products distributed in collaboration with Caritas.