human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Migrant emergency in Bosnia and Herzegovina


Thousands of migrants and refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina trapped on the new Balkan route.

Since the closing of Hungary’s external border, most migrants in the Balkans have been trying to enter the EU via Croatia. This new Balkan route leads through Bosnia and Herzegovina, either from Serbia or from Albania and then Montenegro. In the first nine months of 2018, at least 16,144 refugees and migrants arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most of them are staying in the western part of the country, close to the Croatian border, in Una Sana Canton around the towns of Bihać and Velika Kladuša. In September 2018, between 4,000 and 4,400 migrants were estimated to still be in Bosnia and Herzegovina, from 3,400 to 3,900 in Una Sana Canton alone.

The local communities in Velika Kladuša and Sarajevo provided help and shelter to many people during the first months, but this solidarity could not keep up with the ever-growing number of people arriving. The local and national authorities were quickly overwhelmed and started to rely on UN agencies and national and international NGOs to provide support. However, the needs were manifold. The migrants and refugees needed food and drinks, medical support, clean clothes, a place for washing themselves and a place for sleeping. Winter, which can be very cold in most parts of the country, was approaching quickly. Yet, in September 2018, only 774 winter-safe accommodation were available for the several thousands of migrants, among whom many children.



Caritas’ response

Since September 2018, Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), in collaboration and coordinatination with its three Diocesan Caritas of Banja Luka, Mostar and Sarajevo, has been providing different types of support to migrants and refugees with the financial backing of other European Caritas organisations.

During the summer, smaller activities had already taken place, including distribution of food and equipment to migrant centres. Caritas BiH also undertook a study visit to Caritas Serbia, which has extensive experience in migrant support after almost a million migrants and refugees crossed the country in 2015. Based on their experience, Caritas BiH replicated the idea of a laundry service in Bihać. This allowed migrants and refugees to get their clothes washed and to thus improve their hygiene and prevent skin diseases. In the long term, this also saves a lot of money as less new clothes need to be given out to replace dirty ones. In addition, 497 migrants, mostly children, received so-called “winterisations support” in the form of warm winter shoes.

Caritas is currently also participating in the distribution of fresh food and hygiene articles, including pharmaceutical items, to various centres throughout the country (Delijaš, Hadžići, Salakovac and different locations in Una Sana Canton). All distributions are coordinated with authorities and other non-government organisations active in these camps.

Contacts & Donations


Charel Krieps
Humanitarian Officer
Tel: +32 (0)2 204 03 82


If you want to support the work of Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina, send your donation to the following bank account:

Name of Bank: UniCredit Bank d.d.
Account holder: Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina
IBAN: BA39 338 690 481 206 3318

Update 18 October 2019

A few months ago, the government of Una Sana Canton opened a campsite on a former landfill in Vučjak, about 10 kilometres outside of Bihać. This site is surrounded by minefields and not appropriate for dwelling. It does not respect basic shelter and sanitation standards. However, by order of the local government police forces are relocating all migrants apprehended in the canton to this new site. The campsite has hosted 300 to 800 people in the past but is currently massively overpopulated with around 1,500 migrants. Around 150 new migrants arrive every day in Una Sana Canton.

The government of Una Sana Canton just announced that it would stop funding Vučjak but that the forced relocation to this site would not stop. It wants to put pressure on the State government to take action in Vučjak by providing financial support for migrant support. The UN agencies IOM and UNHCR do not intervene either. A major humanitarian crisis is looming.

The future of existing UN-administered shelters for migrants in Bihać (Bira reception centre where Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina is working) and in Velika Kladuša (Miral center) is also unclear. Larger numbers of migrants have also started arriving in the city of Tuzla. They come mostly from Serbia into the Republika Srpska and are escorted by the police forces of this entity to the closest town in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is Tuzla. The migrants sleep in and around the bus station and receive help from volunteers. IOM is trying to escort families with children to safer locations, but they can only do this if these families registered with the Office for Foreigners in Tuzla, which is only open from 8 am to 4 pm. If the families didn’t register by 4 pm, IOM cannot house them in one of their centres. Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina will search for possibilities in establishing an office and employ new staff in cooperation with Diocesan Caritas to establish a presence in Tuzla.

Italian television magazines Presa Diretta, TG LA7 and Studio Aperto accompanied Caritas staff working with migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and documented the miserable conditions in  Vučjak. A photo series of the living conditions of migrants in these countries can be found here.

Update 30 June 2019

The initial phase of funding for Caritas BiH’s work to improve the living conditions of migrants and refugees stranded in the country ended on 30 June 2019. However, since the situation has not improved, Caritas BiH continues providing support under new funding that has already been fully secured.

Over the initial 10-month period, to make the biggest possible impact to the benefit of people in need, Caritas BiH dedicated the largest amount of resources to the laundry service in the Bira camp. Approximately 13,000 people benefitted from this service.

The remaining funds were used for smaller scale activities, such as the provision of food and hygiene products and winterisation activities in the different camps.

Caritas BiH provided support to 380 children aged 0-5 years in the Salakovac, Hadžići, Delijaš and Una Sana Canton camps. Due to their young age, these children have special dietary and nutritional needs as well as require specific hygienic and sanitary products. Caritas BiH also carried out monthly distributions of hygiene products in the Ušivak camp.

In the Delijaš camp, Caritas BiH distributed fresh food to 1,421 people, mainly vegetables, fruits and milk which are not found in the monthly food packages provided by the Ministry.

497 migrants, mainly children, received winterisation support in the form of appropriate winter shoes.

Additional activities consisted of the distribution of monthly supplies of tea and coffee (in Delijaš) at the tea and coffee corner where asylum seekers could also seek psychosocial support and attend cooking or language classes. Caritas BiH also provided medical materials to support the management of the Salakovac camp in establishing an ambulance.

To continue aiding migrants and refugees stranded in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Caritas BiH will maintain its activities aimed at improving living conditions, mainly via the provision of quality nutrition, particularly to children under the age of 5, and of personal hygiene items, especially for families with children. Caritas BiH will also aim at improving the quality of social life of migrants in the camps. The main activity will continue to be the provision of the laundry service.

Update 24 May 2019

During the first ten months of the emergency, Caritas BiH assisted more than 15,000 migrants and refugees with an initial budget of €90,000 provided by Caritas Austria, Caritas Belgium, Caritas Italy, Caritas Spain and Caritas Switzerland. However, with the Croatian police illegally using violence to push back migrants, most people are now stuck in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the needs are not decreasing. In fact, the humanitarian situation has worsened in some camps. Caritas BiH decided to continue its activities building on the past experiences.

Caritas BiH made a call for new funds to cover the support for the next ten months. Together with its Diocesan Caritas, Caritas BiH is continuing the monthly distribution of fresh food and hygiene packages, as well as the provision of food and non-food items for small children. The main support remains the laundry service, which thousands of migrants can access every month in the Bira camp. It works with four washing machines and four dryers. These industrial machines have the capacity to wash up to eight kilos of clothes at a time and with a shorter cycle than what domestic machines have, they are capable of completing up to 35 washing cycles per day. Caritas employs two full time and two part time staff to work in the laundry service. As part of lessons learnt during the first 10 months of the emergency, the working hours of the laundry service have been extended and it is now also open on Saturdays.

The laundry service is essential to guarantee minimum hygiene standards in the Bira camp, which currently hosts more than 1,000 people, most of whom are young men. Because of the limited capacities, the Internal Organization for Migration (IOM) is running a second laundry service that only washes bedlinen, pillows, blankets and other items needed to run the camp.