Sarajevo, May 2018
In May 2018, a number of people who fled their countries set up camp in the centre of Sarajevo, just across the iconic City Hall on the banks of the Miljacka river. In today’s political debate, these people are usually called migrants, and less frequently refugees. A refugee has been defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention as a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail him, or herself, of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution. Over 140 states which have ratified this treaty have agreed to provide refugees in their territory with certain rights, among others: the right not to be prosecuted for illegally entering the state, the right not to be expelled, the right to housing and education, and the right to freedom of movement. A migrant is not necessarily afforded these rights. The United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, has described the difference between a refugee and migrant as follows:
Refugees are forced to flee because of a threat of persecution and because they lack the protection of their own country. A migrant, in comparison, may leave his or her country for many reasons that are not related to persecution, such as for the purposes of employment, family reunification or study. A migrant continues to enjoy the protection of his or her own government, even when abroad.
I will avoid this debate here and simply refer to the people I photographed as human beings, each with his or her own individual story to tell, each with his or her own suffering, his or her own good and bad traits, personality, emotions, dreams, fears… By just looking at them, I am unable to say whether they fled persecutions, conflict, or poverty. The few that I spoke to said they were from Syria, Afghanistan, and Morocco. I could hear a lot of Arabic around me. There were also a few people from Africa and South Asia.
It is not clear to me who was first to set up a tent at this location. I assume it was done out of necessity but also consciously in order for the city’s government to see the problem and help these people. I also wondered about the toilet and shower facilities, or the lack thereof, in the camp as I could not see any.
I walked passed the tents on a few different occasions and then also one day with my camera. I saw a car had arrived with bags of food and other supplies that, what I assumed, some volunteers wanted to distribute to the men and women living in the camp. However, while some neatly waited in line to receive a package, others were less patient, probably out of fear on missing out. Chaos ensued and police, which was permanently stationed near the camp, made a half-hearted attempt to control the situation.
The police did not succeed. Soon thereafter the crowd surrounded the woman trying to hand out the bags. The process had to be interrupted and was then restarted by giving out the bags to the people at the end of the line, rewarding their patience. The episode was a sad illustration of the failure of the authorities to provide food and shelter to the men, women, and children camping in the centre of the city in all weather conditions.
I was mostly struck by the children in the camp. On one hand they are blessed by ignorance, especially the very young ones. On the other hand, however, they must find it hard to be constantly on the move, to be making and losing friends along the way, to be without a roof over their head. They also lack education, health care, and a decent playground – what impact all of this will have on them remains to be seen.
Reactions to the camp from Sarajevans I could hear were mixed. Some complained about the camp’s location, about the authorities’ inability to find suitable shelter for the people, about the hygiene, and about the rise in crime (real or perceived, there were reported instances of crimes perpetrated by the newly arrived). Others were sympathetic as it was only recently that many Bosnians themselves were refugees. Such people brought food, water, toys, blankets, clothes and other things to the “residents” of the camp. A lot of people were indifferent; they knew that these people did not come to settle in Bosnia but that they were trying to find a way to more prosperous European countries. In fact, one of Bosnia’s major problems today is the emigration of young people to EU states. Who is to judge the Syrians and others for just wanting to pass through this country that is still coping with ethnic division, corruption, and economic troubles?
In the end, the camp existed for several weeks if not longer than a month. The people who built them were taken to more appropriate shelters elsewhere in the country, not without difficulties along the way. The local government ploughed the park, ensuring that no further camps could be established. I wish the people I encountered a healthy and a safe future.