A woman and children in front of the camp Miral in Velika Kladusa. Photo by Vanja Stokic.

The situation on the ground stands in sharp contrast to the biased reports of many media outlets in Bosnia. From Mediacentar.

They burn, attack, beat, rob, rape. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina live in terror, fearing blood will be shed. Exclusively male, with fashionable clothes, these are extremists without papers.

These are the most common descriptions in the Bosnian media of migrants making their way through the country. Ever since Bosnia became part of the“Balkan route” from Greece to Western Europe, the public has been barraged with fake news and disinformation on refugees and migrants with hardly any relevance to the reality on the ground. The rare incidents that occur are exaggerated to label an entire group of people, which ultimately results in more violence toward them. Here we deconstruct the most common prejudices against the migrants.

Prejudice: Refugees and migrants are exclusively men.
Reality: There are many women, children, and minors in the camps and on the streets.

Of the four currently active camps in the Krajina region (Borici and Lipa in Bihac, Sedra in Cazin, and Miral in Velika Kladusa), two are reserved for families. They house women with their husbands and children, as well as minors traveling alone. Indeed, refugees and migrants are predominantly men, but the number of women and children is not at all negligible. According to data from the International Organization for Migration, there were 569 people in these two camps as of late November, including children and their parents, as well as minors who were traveling unescorted.

However, these people are very rarely shown in the media for two reasons. First, getting access to the camps to film them requires a permit. Permits were easily obtained before the pandemic, but it has not been possible as of March last year. Also, once a permit to enter the camps is obtained, each person you wish to film has to provide written permission. Some of the women are reluctant to talk, and the majority of them don’t speak English. Filming children is not allowed inside or outside the camps, according to generally accepted journalism standards.  

Children in front of the camp Miral in Velika Kladusa. Photo by Vanja Stokic.

As a rule, women and children found on the streets are quickly placed in family camps. Still, many of them can be seen on the streets. In September this year, the area around the bus station in Banja Luka was flooded with families with children, as well as the area surrounding the Miral camp in Velika Kladusa. We encountered a father with three small children in the woods between Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the two entities that make up the country), where the police had taken them and left them in “no man’s land.”

“I just want to reach Europe and get adequate medical treatment for my son,” the man said, pointing to the congenital deformity on the boy’s head.

At the same time, the majority of residents at the Velecevo checkpoint near Kljuc are families with small children. The Facebook profile of the local Red Cross regularly posts information on women and children residing at the checkpoint. When we visited in late September, there were several families with small children and babies.

In Tuzla, a city in northeastern Bosnia, women and children are placed in a house rented by a few organizations solely for that purpose, to remove them from the streets immediately upon arrival. As for men who are traveling alone, most of them say that they are “paving the way” for families they left behind in their countries of origin. After they reach Europe, they will help them get there legally and start a new life.

Prejudice: They are not refugees, but illegal immigrants.
Reality: There are many true refugees, and everyone has the right to legal protection.

According to data from the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a total of 60,237 refugees and migrants entered the country over the past two years. In terms of refugees fleeing war, they came from Afghanistan (8,792 people), Syria (5,290), Iraq (5,054), Libya (972), and Palestine (743).

“I left because it became too dangerous to live there,” explained a young man from Afghanistan whom we met in Tuzla early last year. “The Taliban came to my house one day and said I had to fight for them. My father said I had to leave because our village was in danger, flooded with the Taliban. My family is still there; my father is old and cannot travel. I have five brothers; two are in the national army, one is currently in Turkey, and two are very young. I started this journey with one of my brothers, but he stayed in Turkey because we didn’t have enough money to travel together. We decided that I should come here and try to reach a European country, and then help him join me there.”

A man shows injuries on his feet after extensive walking through the woods alongside the Bihac area. Photo by Vanja Stokic.

Migrants from Pakistan (19,559), Iran (5,008), Bangladesh (3,194), Morocco (2,953), Algeria (2,357), Egypt (1,064), and India (869) leave home for economic reasons, fear of human rights violations, or out of fear for their lives and safety. Pakistan is an extremely poor country where a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Human rights and freedoms are very limited, and according to Human Rights Watch, a prodigious 20 million children do not attend school.

Prejudice: They have no papers and cannot be identified.
Reality: Ask and they will tell you.

It is true that some migrants and refugees have no papers, but it is also true that the rest do. In July this year, two men showed us their passports in Velika Kladusa to persuade us that they were from Tunisia. Early last year, we met three other Tunisians at the train station in Banja Luka who also had their passports with them. They told us that they came to Serbia legally for the New Year’s holidays, and then illegally crossed into Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A man from Kashmir sent us a photograph of his passport, asking us to help him get asylum. A man from Morocco, after a few months in Bosnia, realized he had made a mistake and should never have gone on this journey. Thanks to the passport he carried with him all along, he had no problem getting back home. In Tuzla, a Moroccan journalist showed us his passport, press credentials, and several other papers to prove his identity.

According to volunteers working on the ground, as well as people on the move themselves, refugees and migrants lose their papers in transport; they get stolen or even destroyed by the police. Dozens of refugees and migrants have told us that police in Croatia tore up or burned their passports.

A house in flames in Polje near Velika Kladusa. Photo by Sefik Sadikovic.

“I can’t reach Italy legally with my passport – if I showed it at the border, they would take it away or burn it. I don’t have it with me, but I have a scan,” said Islam from Tunisia.

A recent crime  in Bihac, when two men were killed during a confrontation between two groups, showed that identifying refugees and migrants is possible. After a few days, the killers were identified and located in Sarajevo.

Prejudice: They set fire to the places where they stay.
Reality: Fires broke out by accident or the local population set them.

The houses occupied by refugees and migrants are either abandoned or devastated, or the owners don’t live there. Sometimes the owners allow them to stay there. If there is a fire, in most cases, it is accidental because people on the move try to warm themselves with fires inside the house. Other times, local people set fire to houses occupied by migrants out of hatred. That was the case recently in Vrnograc near Velika Kladusa, where the owner had allowed four migrants from Morocco and Algeria to stay temporarily. Both migrants and locals confirm that local thugs came to the house for days, beating the inhabitants and even drawing weapons on them. One night they came with a can of gasoline.

“It’s not good. They are violent toward us here; they even use stun guns,” said Amar from Morocco during our visit to Vrnograc in late September. “They set the house on fire with gas, the one where we slept.”

During the conversation, the migrants showed us bruises and knife wounds, which they said the thugs inflicted. The people of Vrnograc confirmed the story.

Begging us not to publish their names or pictures, some locals said the thugs beat their victims so hard, the whole village echoed with moans and screams. One night, they said, they shot at the migrants. They drew weapons in broad daylight, outside the primary school, no less.

“They say they have to protect their children from the migrants, but I don’t know exactly what they’re protecting them from when it’s not the migrants making trouble here,” one local resident said. “It’s not safe for them here. They’ll kill them!” was another comment we heard.

The Una-Sana Canton police informed us they registered the case, but that they have no information on the perpetrators.

A similar event took place 31 October in Polje near Velika Kladusa.

“The problem is that there are people who want to solve the migrant crisis at all cost,” Sefik Sadikovic wrote on Facebook. He was the firefighter who was the first to respond to the scene in Vrnograc, the morning after the fire was extinguished. “Last night, these ‘Bosnian banditos’ beat four poor people so badly that bones were broken and set their house on fire and all their [belongings]. So much for us,” he added, lamenting the reaction of some of the locals.

In a subsequent interview, Sadikovic said the house was abandoned and migrants had been using it for the past two years.

“I called the ambulance and police because they were beaten and one of them couldn’t stand up,” he said.

In its coverage, the Cazin.net news site claimed the migrants had caused the fire and that “it was to be expected.”

In some cases, even the police deny media reports that migrants set houses on fire, as in Krstace village near Bileca. The media often publish reports directly accusing migrants of setting fires but offering no evidence for these claims, not even statements from the locals, firefighters, or the police. Headlines commonly identify migrants as the culprits, while the article actually indicates that the culprits are unknown.

Prejudice: They wear expensive clothes and have good phones.
Reality: They have what they’re given in Bosnia.

Migrants and refugees in Bosnia mostly have only what they get from the locals, non-governmental organizations, and volunteers. They return to Bosnia from the cat-and-mouse “game” of trying to illegally cross the border with nothing. Some say the Croatian police have taken their phones, money, sleeping bags, and even shoes. Sometimes they even return without their clothes.

“There went a group of them, completely naked!” a young man from Polje, the location of the Miral camp, told us in early October. “The poor things were beaten and everything was taken from them, even clothes, so they had to walk back like that through the woods of Bosnia. Local people then gave them what they could.”

Group of migrants cleaning the area where they took shelter in Bosanska Otoka. Photo by Vanja Stokic.

A phone is very important to all people on the move because it is the only way to communicate with their families, as well as the only way to navigate through woods and across mountains, using Google Maps. Facebook groups offering help to refugees and migrants in Bosnia occasionally post requests for phone donations to migrants who have lost theirs.

Prejudice: They leave trash behind.
Reality: Significantly less than local citizens.

It is true that places occupied by refugees and migrants have a lot of trash. It is also true that these places are very tidy if there are trash bins or dumpsters nearby. For instance, at the bus station in Tuzla, we witnessed refugees and migrants cleaning up. In “no man’s land” between the country’s two entities, people asked us if we had any trash bags with us so they could clean the space they occupied. There was no trash to be seen in the woods occupied by about 400 men from Bangladesh, except that in garbage bags tied to trees.

At the same time, if we veer into suburban areas anywhere in Bosnia that aren’t frequented by migrants, we can see furniture, household appliances, and a lot of other waste dumped in rivers.

Prejudice: They are violent and terrorize the local population.
Reality: The police refute these allegations.

According to research by the Raskrinkavanje.ba media monitor, migrants have been a very frequent target of fake news and disinformation in the Bosnian media over the past two years and more. This group of people is most frequently depicted as violent and radical.

“The article that marked the ‘turning point’ in media reporting on migrants was published in May 2018 in the Dnevni Avaz newspaper and claimed, contrary to police reports, that ‘Migrants Pillage and Beat in the Center of Sarajevo.’ From that moment on, the amount of disinformation on migrants and refugees started to rise,” the report says. “However, the real growth of disinformation happened after the majority of refugees and migrants were concentrated in the Una-Sana Canton, i.e., borderline areas which, in time, became increasingly difficult to exit to cross the border into Croatia.

The disinformation narrative culminated in 2019 when, among other things, the Antimigrant site entered the Bosnian online media scene. Its very name, as well as its content, clearly and openly delivered the message that its purpose was to incite hatred toward refugees and migrants. By then, similar content was widespread on social networks, where they are usually published on anonymous sites.” 

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Una-Sana Canton, there were 1,693 criminal offenses in the canton in 2019, of which 205 were committed by migrants. The majority of these offenses – 165 – were robberies and break-ins, followed by infliction of bodily injury and arson. There were four murders within the migrant population.

During 2018, 77 out of 1,406 criminal offenses committed in the canton were believed to have been committed by refugees and migrants. Half of them were thefts or burglaries. There were two registered cases of rape, one within the migrant population. There were also three attempted murders and one murder, according to the Interior Ministry.

The Zurnal news site published information that the situation is similar in Sarajevo Canton, based on that canton’s Interior Ministry statistics. They reveal that, from January to September of last year, 3,433 criminal offenses were committed in Sarajevo Canton, of which only 88 were attributed to refugees and migrants. Among these were two murders, four attempted murders, five cases of severe bodily injury and three of minor injuries, as well as one case of an indecent act. The rest were mainly cases of theft and robbery.

Mujo Zalic lives near the Miral camp in Velika Kladusa. Not far from his house are several large squats where migrants live. He emphasizes that he’s never had any trouble with them. If anything does happen, it’s usually little things, he said.

“Someone took some shoes or clothes from the line; the other day they took a towel. I told him not to do that, I’ll give it to him if he asks. He cried … He was ashamed of what he was doing, and I would have given it to him anyway. I can understand them, look at how they walk around in the rain,” Zalic said in March last year.

His neighbor thinks the situation is generally very bad and that nobody – not the state bodies, the NGO sector, or locals – is prepared to receive these people in humane circumstances. (The man’s name has been withheld because those who have helped the migrants have been targeted in the area.) He pointed out that one of the key issues is the inability to communicate. He’s housed several men on the move in his home.

“People are in trouble – not everyone should be treated as a thief. At least I don’t think they are. I let them stay here for a while. I live alone and I’d feel bad having a spare room while they’re out in the rain. As a human being, I helped them out,” he said.

A few people protested outside the Miral camp in early October, demanding it be closed and the migrants deported. The demonstrators did not want to talk to the press. Those who agreed to speak off the record could not provide a personal negative experience with refugees and migrants, but retold events reported in the media or heard from other people. One woman said that refugees and migrants were stealing the wood outside her house, so she had to protect her property with a fence.

The hostility toward the migrants is further exacerbated by media headlines such as “Migrants Sow Fear Among the People of Tuzla: Stealing Wallets and Following Young Women on the Streets,” “Migrants are the Greatest Threat,” “Crime on the Rise [border police director Zoran] Galic: Illegal Immigrants are Getting Increasingly Aggressive,” or “This Will Chill Your Blood – Migrants Raped 1,400 girls in the City of Rotherham.”

Allegations of migrants terrorizing the local population were especially frequent in the media immediately before and after the Lipa camp was opened near Bihac in the spring of last year. The SrpskaInfo site published a sensationalist article under the headline “Widespread Fear of Bloodletting.” The article cites accusations against migrants of violent behavior and disturbing locals. The other side is given only superficially; migrants weren’t asked about the accusations at the heart of the article, but to comment on the camp food and living conditions.

On his family’s property in Lipa we encountered Mirsad Duzovic, who said he came here on weekends. He has a herd of sheep on the land and a shepherd who takes care of them, his family house, and auxiliary facilities. He sees no damage there.

“The migrants have been here since March and we’ve had absolutely no trouble with them. They entered a weekend home to sleep but did not damage it. Or set fire to it or rob it. They didn’t miss a nail!” Duzovic said just a few hundred meters from the camp.

Nevertheless, the sensational headlines – mostly produced without even visiting the supposedly troublesome sites and by copying information from other media outlets – greatly influence the opinions of local people. This was the case with some of the young journalists who volunteer at the eTrafika news site: much of their knowledge of migrants was drawn from other media prone to spread fake news and disinformation.

Eager to put their attitudes to the test and see how migrants live with their own eyes, a half-dozen volunteer reporters joined eTrafika journalists in visits to camps and squats in Bosnia. Feedback from them before and after the field visits showed that, after seeing the situation on the ground, the prejudices they had picked up from the media crumbled in the face of reality.

Vanja Stokic is editor in chief of the eTrafika news site. She also writes for other media on human rights, marginalized groups, minorities, and social injustice. This article was originally published on the website of Mediacentar Sarajevo. Translated by Tijana Dmitrovic. Reprinted with permission.