Bosnia: Humanitarian crisis and EU aspirations

Bosnia: Humanitarian crisis and EU aspirations

Human rights NGOs and international organisations have raised flags that increasing migration flows along the Western Balkans route may soon constitute in a humanitarian crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is likely that this crisis may damage Bosnia’s already fragile EU accession aspirations and could weaken its future development.   

The number of “irregular migrants” along the Western Balkans route was on a downward trend in the across the past two years. However, 2019 has seen a rise in numbers with up to 900 persons per week entering Bosnia. The EU has provided more than €141 million in assistance to the region since 2015 to address the refugee and migrant crisis, including €10 million allocated to Bosnia this past August. Still, the government has yet to allocate any new sites for refugee camps, leaving thousands stranded in inhumane conditions. 

“The Jungle” at Vucjak 

The majority of refugees and migrants in Bosnia are located in the Una-Sana Canton, where the Vucjak camp is located. This camp, known as “The Jungle” to its residents, lacks basic necessities such as running water, electricity, or medical care. Concerns about a humanitarian crisis in Bosnia are mounting as winter approaches. Those living in improvised camps face extreme risks due to inadequate shelter and a lack of adequate access to food and medical care. As temperatures continue to drop, these risks only grow.

Indira Kulenovic of the Red Cross stated that the Jungle “is not a place for humans,” given that it was not intended to be a real camp. Local authorities brought migrants to the camp for lack of an alternative, despite knowing of its inhumane conditions. 

The camp is slated to close in December, after repeated warnings that it never should have opened, and residents will be moved to other camps throughout the country. However, many refuse to be moved further from the border and have said that they will simply return once removed. The Bosnian government has not indicated that existing camps have been updated or expanded to accommodate additional residents. 

Bosnia is not the only state along the Western Balkans route struggling to address the influx of refugees and migrants over the past four years. However, its position as a potential candidate country for entrance to the European Union makes its situation unique. A humanitarian crisis in Bosnia could be catastrophic for the state’s bid to join the EU, which places Bosnia at a crossroads. 

Alternatively, humane and deliberate management of the situation could bolster Bosnia’s position. However, a failure to act appropriately will have local implications that resonate on the international level.

Domestic implications 

The past several years of refugee flows have instilled discontent among local populations and refugees alike. There have been anti-immigrant demonstrations, with locals demanding the closure of the camp. Local authorities have also called for the rest of the state to “share the migrant burden” which disproportionately impacts the northwest region.

The anti-immigrant sentiment in Bosnia combined with inadequate support infrastructure and a lack of political will have made the government slow to utilize EU assistance. A hesitation that remained largely uninfluenced by international organizations warnings of a humanitarian crisis in Bosnia. 

The influx of people has exacerbated the strain on Bosnia’s economy caused by high unemployment rates. Bosnia’s tripartite presidency complicates matters further, as the three members are often slow to reach consensus if consensus is reached at all. 

There are also significant health concerns as migrants regularly die due to a lack of basic shelter and medical services. Many are also exposed to respiratory infections and skin diseases as a result of the poor conditions. This poses a risk not only to those residing in these camps but also to nearby residents. 

Bosnia’s bid to join the EU

These local issues have an international impact. 

Bosnia has been a potential candidate country for EU membership for many years and has made incremental progress in discussions and formal negotiations with the Union. However, last March saw the state’s internal divisions begin to interfere, as the chairman of Bosnia’s presidency submitted responses to questions from the EU after the agreed deadline while also omitting several of the answers sought. 

Of its regional neighbours, Montenegro, Serbia and Albania all hold candidate status, leaving Bosnia and Kosovo as the remaining potential candidate countries. The regional desire for EU accession is often cited as a mechanism for maintaining stability in the aftermath of the brutal conflicts in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Bosnia’s failure to react quickly and appropriately has the potential to derail progress towards meeting the Copenhagen Criteria, which outline the conditions of eligibility for EU membership. 

Most relevant in this case are the qualifiers which deal with the maintenance of human rights. Bosnia’s treatment of refugees calls this into question as migrants continue to be at risk. Similarly, the Copenhagen Criteria also require an administrative and institutional capacity to effectively implement the changes necessitated by the membership. 

In the current circumstances, Bosnia has demonstrated a diminished capacity to address human security concerns which require small scale development relative to an EU-overhaul. This calls into question the state’s ability to implement necessary EU policies should it reach candidate status. 

Other Implications  

Bosnia’s EU bid is not the only thing at stake. First, the economic and political tensions caused by migration have only mounted over time, fatiguing Bosnia’s capacity to address them. As the situation worsens with this new uptick in arrivals, the state may be at risk of liability under international law––refugees and migrants that have entered Bosnia illegally are being removed from the transit and held, typically without legal action, but also without any assistance. This means that they are effectively stranded in the country and many end up in informal camps such as the Jungle as a result. In some cases, apprehended individuals are asylum seekers. However, most wish to continue on to the EU before applying. 

Second, Bosnia’s handling of the increase in refugee and migrant flows over the past year has placed its international relations in jeopardy. Legal consequences at the international level, while possible, are unlikely, but Bosnia’s international relations may still be at risk. Bosnia’s failure to adequately host migrants only encourages continuation into Croatia, which has also been overwhelmed by the increasing numbers.

Bosnia’s continued stifling of movement towards Croatia may be an attempt to maintain a good faith relationship, as those who do reach EU member-state Croatia are then received under the terms of the Dublin Agreements, which stipulate that the country of the first arrival is where asylum seekers will have their application processed. This can take several years and given the volume of applications since 2015, places a significant strain on the state in question. 

Practices under the Dublin Agreements across EU member states vary, but there have been demonstrated failures to respect the rights of applicants so severe that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has had to intervene. Croatia and other EU members have engaged in practices such as closing down borders to avoid such culpability, though this practice also arguably violates the agreement. 


Given Bosnia’s position along the Western Balkans route, it is highly likely that the concerns outlined here will persist. As migrants continue to enter, the impact of Bosnia’s decisions will grow, as will the potential for catastrophe. A humanitarian crisis in Bosnia would not only damage the state’s EU aspirations by exacerbating its weaknesses but could also further entrench regional instability. 

The continued hesitation of the Bosnian government to create new, adequate camps, increases the likelihood of more and more migrants crossing into Croatia, which could harm the close relations of the two states. This could create tensions that may cause issues across anything from their bilateral trade relations to Bosnia’s ultimate goal of EU membership. 

While these concerns are significant, the far more pressing issue is the treatment of the refugees currently in the state. Without proper shelter, medical care, and improved sanitation, they will die. Though the Bosnian government has agreed to close The Jungle, the location with the most egregious conditions, the other official camps have issues of their own. 

Camps were overcrowded while the Jungle was inhabited by thousands. These thousands will now join facilities which were already overcapacity. This will strain the resources of the centres, meaning that the nutrition, health and sanitation concerns of the Jungle will not be escaped by relocating. 

As international organizations continue to warn of a looming humanitarian crisis, Bosnia’s actions in the next month are therefore crucial to its ultimate goal of EU membership. More importantly, Bosnia must take decisive action to accommodate the humanitarian needs of those within its borders to support its own continued healing and development. Further deterioration of the situation can only result in instability both at home and in its bilateral relations. 

Categories: Europe, Insights

About Author

Alena Zafonte

Alena Zafonte is currently pursuing an MSc in Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science and holds a BSc in Political Science from Northeastern University. She is specializing in post-conflict arms control and reconciliation with a focus on Central and Eastern Europe. She joins GRI with a diverse background in strategic communications, security & crisis management, and human rights advocacy. Her work and has taken her all over the world, including positions with Belgrade’s Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies and the UK House of Commons. Alena has previously written for The Borgen Project and E-International Relations.