HA 023: Kandvala

Life in an unofficial shelter for refugees and migrants on the Bosnia-Croatia border

Words and images by Sitara Thalia Ambrosio | Website | Instagram


A mere 10 km from the Croatian border, on the banks of the Una river, sits Bihać—a small city in northwest Bosnia-Herzegovina that has become the involuntary home of thousands of refugees and economic migrants since 2017. 

The “Don Penzionera" building in Bihać was once supposed to be a home for the elderly, but today many refugees and migrants choose to shelter here in an attempt to escape the restrictive, dismal conditions in official camps nearby. Residents of this building have no access to running water or electricity.

Much of the world is well familiar with the migrant crisis in Europe by now, having seen hundreds of newsreels of refugees and migrants crowded onto rafts attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, or gathered in camps and reception areas, fleeing devastating conflict and economic fallout in their respective homelands. 

As the crisis has unfolded across Europe and dragged on year after year, many countries that were at one time welcoming to those seeking asylum and a better life have since changed their stance. Bosnia and Herzegovina became the main hub for migrants hoping to reach the EU after authorities closed the previous migration route through Serbia and Hungary in 2016. Now, the crossing outside Bihać is the shortest route to EU territory. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some 70,000 refugees and migrants from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa have made their way through Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2018.

Confronted with the humanitarian crisis unfurling on their doorstep, Bosnian officials responded to calls for proper shelter and established a handful of camps, the largest of which was Lipa, home to between 900 and 1,400 migrants since spring of 2020. The camp is around 20 km from Bihać, the nearest town, and those sheltering there face severe restrictions on movement in or out of the camp, little to no running water, and overcrowding. 

In September 2020, Bira camp, also in the Bihać vicinity, was closed following protests staged by locals with grievances around the camp’s sprawl across the city. A few months later, Lipa camp was destroyed by a fire, leaving thousands of refugees and migrants with nowhere to go.

For some, a retirement home left unfinished at the onset of the Bosnian war has become their primary shelter as they plan for attempts to cross the nearby Croatian border or recuperate and re-group after being turned back by border guards. Accounts of severe violence, deprivation of property and degradation carried out by guards at the border are rife, and Human Rights Watch has called on the European Union to hold the Croatian government to account for this behavior, potentially triggering legal action. 

Marks from sticks a group of young men report were used by Croatian border police to beat them back after their attempted crossing into the EU. They were then pushed back illegally to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Incidents like these are reported on a regular basis.
A sticker that reads "provided by the European Union" lies trampled in the mud on the outskirts of Bihać. These stickers are typically found on boxes with supplies provided by the IOM, an intergovernmental association with financial backing from the European Union.

Locally referred to as “Dom Penzionera” or “Kandvala” as the old retirement home’s current residents call it, the multiple-story building is drafty, in severe disrepair and void of any plumbing, heat, electricity or sanitation infrastructure and services. Soot from open fires covers the walls, and trash piles up with no one from the city coming to retrieve it. There is, in fact, very little interaction between those sheltering in Kandvala and residents of Bihać—in Una-Sana canon providing assistance to migrants and asylum-seekers on the move has been criminalized and can lead to imprisonment.

That move is representative of the broader attitude toward migrants and refugees in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Reception by authorities and citizens alike has been harsh and tensions are rising, particularly in Bihać where most migrants settle in preparation for an attempted border crossing. At one point there were 7,000 migrants in the area against a local population of 60,000. Calls by local officials to spread the burden across the entire country are widespread. The Serb-dominated Republika Srpska declared an absolute ban on refugees and migrants staying in the region, which has funneled the entire population into the federation shared by Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, stirring public anger even more. 

In the early morning, a special police force clears two buildings in Bihać inhabited by refugees and migrants, including an old paper factory and “Don Penzionera“. The young men that have been evicted are forced to sit together on the ground in the freezing winter weather. They did not have time to gather their belongings before being brought to Lipa camp.

Many sheltering in Kandvala hail from Afghanistan and Pakistan, some seeking asylum from persecution and others hoping for brighter economic prospects abroad. As the Taliban looms—U.S. intelligence assessments predict a collapse of the Afghan government as little as six months after troops withdraw—and COVID-19 continues to ravage communities and economies across South Asia and the rest of the globe, returning home is not an attractive option. Conditions in Bosnia-Herzegovina are not improving in any real way, either, leaving migrants and asylum seekers in a stalemate against authorities on both sides of the border. With no one’s best interests being served, the crisis drags on.

Hassan, a 24-year-old from Pakistan. He lives in a small room on the roof of Don Penzionera. "I started my journey from Pakistan hoping to build a good, prosperous life for my family. I started working hard for a year in Turkey. After a year, I went from Turkey to Greece, from there to Macedonia, then to Serbia. I tried to go to Croatia three times but was deported to Bosnia again. The journey from Pakistan to Bosnia was very difficult. I walked most of the time, sometimes in the woods, sometimes dry on the plains and in the desert, often hungry and thirsty. I still live in an old run-down building with no electricity, water or amenities. Only sometimes an organization helps with several cups, teapots, spoons, etc."
Danny, an 18-year-old from Afghanistan. He lives in a small room in "Don Penzionera" with seven friends. "We walked to Croatia from what was earlier the border to Bosnia. We walked for 12 days to get to Slovenia. Not even four hours had passed after we arrived in Slovenia until the police arrested us and handed us over to the Croatian police. And then we were handed over to the Bosnian police. The police took everything, the money and the phones."

For a closer look at life in Kandvala, check out this multimedia project.