Is the Government Ready to Take the Lead? Transition of Migration Management in Bosnia and Herzegovina

April 22, 2024

By Rio Otsuka


Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is approaching a critical tipping point as it assumes primary responsibility over migration management from the International Organization for Migration. However, few studies have examined whether the government has acquired the ability to take over this responsibility. Such an examination is crucial given the country’s turmoil since 2018, with increased migration inflows, casting doubt over the government's capabilities. Thus, this study explores the current state of migration management in BiH, both to determine whether the government has developed effective migration management capabilities as well as to highlight current migration challenges faced by BiH. Fieldwork at the Temporary Reception Center Usivak in 2023; interviews with 6 non-governmental organization (NGO) officers and 10 migrants in BiH; and analysis of literature and data provided by scholars, governments, international organizations, and NGOs suggest that authorities in BiH, primarily the Ministry of Security, have generally developed effective management capabilities and are ready to assume managing responsibility. Nevertheless, obstacles with providing living conditions in reception centers that meet international standards and with the implementation of coordinated responses among different institutions remain. As the transition proceeds, the Bosnian government should recognize these challenges and implement policies to address them through continued coordination with international organizations and NGOs.


Europe has emerged as a prominent destination for migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, with a notable surge in arrivals since 2015 (Nezirović et al. 2021, 2-3). Within this context, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has experienced a significant influx of migrants seeking passage to European Union (EU) states (Nezirović et al. 2021, 2-3). Although BiH initially faced difficulties in responding to the surge in 2018, assistance from the international community, notably the International Organization for Migration (IOM), contributed to effective migration management (IOM 2023b). Over five years of collaborative efforts, the Bosnian government has now assumed greater responsibilities over migration management, including assuming control of shelters previously overseen by the IOM (NGO Officer A, Usivak, 2023; NGO Officer B, Sarajevo, 2023). This prompts the crucial question of whether the Bosnian government is sufficiently capable of assuming full responsibility over migration management from the IOM. 

To analyze this question, I conducted fieldwork at Temporary Reception Center (TRC) Usivak in 2023 and also interviewed 6 NGO officers working in different areas of BiH to support migrants, as well as more than 10 migrants staying in BiH. The NGO officers I interviewed had three to six years of experience supporting migrants in BiH and worked for six different NGOs. The male and female migrants I interviewed ranged from 18 to 46 years old and included current residents at TRC Usivak, former residents at TRC Lipa, Borici, and Blažuj, and those who resided outside TRCs. Additionally, I conducted a review of the relevant literature and data provided by scholars, governments, international organizations (IOs), and NGOs. From this analysis, I contend that the Bosnian government has, in general, developed the necessary capabilities and is prepared to assume management responsibilities. However, certain concerns, such as providing decent living conditions in shelters and implementing effective coordination among various authorities, persist.

Section 1 of this paper will delve into migration trends in BiH. Section 2 will explore BiH’s migration management system, specifically its legal and political frameworks as well as the assumption of migration management from the IOM by the Ministry of Security (MoS). Section 3 will examine the Bosnian government’s capacity to lead migration management. Section 4 will discuss the living conditions at temporary reception centers (TRCs) in BiH, focusing on their accommodation capacity and quality. Finally, Section 5 will analyze BiH’s implementation of unified migration management, focusing on the challenges posed by institutional complexity and the absence of a unified response.


Migration Trends to BiH

BiH has faced increased migratory pressure since 2018, given that the migration route through the Balkan Peninsula to the EU is shorter and safer compared to the Mediterranean route (Nezirović et al. 2021, 3-4), as well as the closure Hungary and Croatia’s borders with Serbia in 2016 and 2017, respectively (Stanicek 2019, 2). Chart 1 shows the evolution of the number of immigrant inflows to BiH between 2017 and 2023. In 2018, the Ministry of Security of BiH (MoS) recorded 24,067 arrivals, which is more than 3 times the number recorded in 2017 (IOM, 2023b). The influx surged in 2019, reaching 29,124 arrivals, and subsequently declined in 2020 and 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic (IOM, 2023b). However, arrivals rebounded in 2022 with 27,429 arrivals recorded, and reached 34,409 in 2023 (IOM, 2023a). According to the European Commission (EC, 2023b) and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC, 2023), more than 110,000 migrants have arrived in BiH since 2018. 

Figure 1: Migration Arrivals to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2018-2023. Data extracted from the International Organization for Migration [IOM, 2023a].

Figure 1: Migration Arrivals to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2018-2023. Data extracted from the International Organization for Migration [IOM, 2023a]. 

One notable feature of migration to BiH is that BiH is mostly seen as a transit country as opposed to a destination. Nezirović et al. (2021, 5) argue that this is primarily due to BiH’s stagnant economy and government reluctance to accept migrants, including refugees. Less than 3 percent of migrants who arrived in BiH requested asylum for BiH between 2019 and 2022 (UNHCR 2023, 2). Moreover, most migrants leave the country soon after arrival, with an average length of stay in shelters of approximately 10 days during 2023 (IOM, 2023a; EC, 2023c; DRC, 2023).

Incoming migrants to BiH include economic migrants––those who leave their country of origin for purely material reasons and are thus not classified as refugees (European Commission 2024)––as well as asylum seekers. However, current migration inflows have trended toward economic migration (Cikotic 2020, 13; Nezirović et al. 2021, 6-7). The top declared countries of origin are Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Morocco, and Syria (IOM 2023b; IOM 2022b). Most migrants are single men, who comprise approximately 70-80 percent of incoming migrants in 2023. Meanwhile, single women account for less than 5 percent, unaccompanied children account for approximately 5-10 percent; and individuals with families account for approximately 10-20 percent (IOM, 2022b, 2023a, 2023b).


BiH’s Migration Management

Legal and Political Frameworks

The 2015 European migrant crisis propelled the Bosnian government to establish legal and political frameworks to manage migration movements. Since 2016, Bosnian authorities have adopted a strategy and action plan for migration and asylum designed to assess and address the factors of migration flows (Sanicek 2019, 2-3; Global Forum on Migration & Development 2017). This follows the enactment of two statutes governing migrants: the Law on Asylum in 2015 (Refworld 2015) and the Law on Aliens in 2016 (Refworld 2016). Additionally, BiH has adopted and implemented a strategy for integrated border management and an accompanying action plan (EC 2023b). 

BiH has also established institutions to implement such legislations and plans. The MoS has played a role in creating, maintaining, and implementing immigration and asylum policies, as well as issuing decisions on asylum applications (UNHCR n.d.-b). It also undertakes daily activities aligned with the action plans and directives from the presidency, the Council of Ministers, and interministerial migration coordination bodies (Cikotic 2020, 10). Additionally, the MoS provides support to Bosnian police authorities and workers who engage with migrants (Hodzic 2020, 84). Within the MoS, the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs (SFA), an independent administrative unit, is responsible for managing TRCs and asylum facilities (UNHCR n.d.–c). The SFA has 16 field centers tasked with controlling the movement and residence of foreigners; placing foreigners residing illegally in BiH under surveillance; and collecting information on illegal migration (Hodzic 2020, 84-85). The Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees also supports those who are granted refugee status and coordinates both the response of all state actors involved in migration and asylum management as well as humanitarian responses (Santic et al. 2022, 527; UNHCR n.d.-b). Moreover, the Bosnian border police, local governments, and local police forces play important roles in directly contacting migrants, making initial decisions regarding their treatment, and controlling their movements (OSCE 2018, 20-21, 34-37). Coordination between these various institutions is overseen by the Coordination Body for Migration Issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina, an inter-ministerial body composed of civil and police officers from the MoS, the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Hodzic 2020, 83-84). In addition, the SFA plays a crucial role as an intermediary institution, tying together various stakeholders and acting as “[a] stop-[over][] for case referrals between other institutions” (OSCE 2018, 18). 

To date, few studies have adopted a negative view of the legal frameworks and institutions governing migration to BiH. Both Hodzic (2020, 19) and the International Center for Migration Policy Development (2022, 1-2) argue that BiH has well-designed institutional capacities and all the required legislative structures to address migration situations and implement effective migration management.

However, despite having sound legal frameworks around migration, Bosnian authorities have struggled to manage the significant migration influx for several years after the surge in 2018, and have relied heavily on the international community to manage the situation. According to Kurnik and Razsa (2020, 14), migration increases in late 2017 were met with distinct laxity by Bosnian authorities, with migration management primarily implemented through local and international initiatives. The EC acknowledges that its failure to develop an effective migration and asylum system contributed to humanitarian crises involving migrants (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 2021). The IOM expressed concerns regarding Bosnian authorities’ inability to adequately respond to the basic needs of migrants (2022a). Moreover, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Migration, Felipe González Morales, stated during his 2019 visit to BiH that “the increased flow of migrants has exposed the significant institutional and coordination weaknesses at different levels of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s relevant authorities” (European Parliamentary Research Service 2019, 2). Scholars also stressed enhancing accommodation capacities and providing technical, material, and financial support to Bosnian authorities (Kržalić et al. 2019, 2-5; Korajlic and Smailbegović 2020, 25-26). 

Transition of Migration Management Role from IOM to the MoS

Since 2018, the IOM has supported the government in effectively managing the reception system following international standards, such as providing shelters, and fulfilling the basic needs of migrants (IOM 2023b). The IOM delegated the role of managing the daily operations of TRCs to the SFA and acted as the leading agency for international support on migration response in BiH (IOM 2023b). An NGO officer, who had worked in BiH since 2018, stated that between 2018 and 2020, IOs and NGOs led the response to the increase in migrant arrivals due to the slow and insufficient response of the BiH government. The government’s efforts to meet migrants’ needs failed during the period of heightened influx of migrants. (NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023). In addition to the IOM, the UNHCR enhances migrants’ access to primary health care, education, legal aid, and psychosocial assistance. Furthermore, civil societies, such as NGOs, informal volunteer groups, and religious communities, contribute to BiH’s migration management in the field (OSCE 2018, 31-33, 42-45).

The MoS is currently pursuing a state-owned migration response, progressively assuming management of TRCs from the IOM. The MoS committed to bearing this responsibility in March 2019, beginning with direct management of TRC Lipa in 2021 (IOM 2020, 2023b). Other TRCs are still operated by the IOM, but their security management has been taken over by Bosnian authorities since April 2022 (IOM 2023b). According to the NGO officers I interviewed, active transition in other areas began in March 2023 (NGO officer E, Geneva, 2023). The IOM cooperates with Bosnian authorities to advance the transition of management roles, capacity building, and on-the-job training with the SFA and other key agencies (IOM 2023b).


BiH Government’s Capability of Leading Migration Management

The above literature analysis and data revealed migration trends and management systems in BiH. This section investigates whether the Bosnian authorities have the capability to assume responsibility for assuming migration management from the IOM. In addition to analyzing the literature, I assessed the views of 6 NGO officers working for migrants in BiH and more than 10 migrants residing in BiH who I interviewed during and after my fieldwork in BiH in 2023. 

Although the Bosnian authorities struggled to implement emergency and humanitarian responses to the heightened influx of migrants from 2018 to 2020, few studies have evaluated BiH’s migration management since 2021. Moreover, all six NGO officers I interviewed supported the government’s assumption of migration management roles, arguing that, in light of changing circumstances, the Bosnian authorities were now able to govern the situation. By 2021, BiH’s migration included a well-established response structure, with the installation of an ample number of TRCs (NGO Officer A, Usivak, 2023; NGO Officer B, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer C, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer D, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023; NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023). The NGO Officers further argued that this new stability was visible in their daily activities inside and outside TRCs (NGO Officer D, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023). The officers concluded that, as the influx of migrants became controllable and a firm migrant acceptance structure was established in BiH, Bosnian authorities, specifically the MoS, were capable of assuming management of TRCs and migration challenges (NGO Officer B, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023).

The NGO officers also highlighted the importance of both the gradual assumption of responsibilities as well as of capacity building (NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023; NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023). IOs and NGOs hold training and workshops regarding TRC management and other response duties to improve Bosnian authorities’ capacities (IOM 2023b), and IOs and NGOs are expected to continue cooperating with Bosnian authorities even after the takeover is completed (NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023; NGO Officer F, Geneva,  2023). One officer anticipated that the transition in BiH would likely yield better outcomes compared to Greece, where a sudden government takeover, which resulted in the dismissal of all NGOs from refugee camps, left numerous gaps and problems such as limited opportunities and protection services provided to displaced persons (NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023; NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023). Furthermore, the assumption of government TRC management in BiH has been gradual. Assumption of management began in TRC Lipa, with management of other TRCs assumed subsequently. While some agencies, such as Amnesty International (2021), contend that the assumption of responsibility in TRC Lipa took place hastily––without assurances that the SFA had proper resources, expertise, and capacities––the NGO officers from the different organizations I interviewed disagreed (NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023; NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023). They stated that even if gaps in the management transition were identified, these could be covered by further training and assistance from the international community (NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023, NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023).

Furthermore, all NGO officers I interviewed strongly insisted that since the culmination of the state of emergency that arose from the 2018 migration influx, IOs should continue handing over migration management to the Bosnian government (NGO Officer A 2023; NGO Officer B, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer C, Sarajevo 2023; NGO Officer D, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023; NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023). One officer highlighted that the government’s assumption of control could potentially increase public funding for NGOs supporting migrants (NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023). The officer had encountered situations in which NGOs had to cease operations in BiH due to a lack of private funding. The officer speculated that a more active government role in migration management could lead to increased financial support and the stabilization of NGO activities in BiH (NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023).

However, the NGO officers agreed that two main challenges exist when Bosnian authorities assume management of migration: maintaining TRC living conditions in accordance with international standards, and coordinating a unified migration management policies among various institutions (NGO Officer A, Usivak, 2023; NGO Officer B, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer C, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer D, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023; NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023). These challenges are discussed further in the next section, along with the recommendations for the BiH authorities.


Living Conditions at TRCs

Accommodation Capacity

At the beginning of the surge in migrant arrivals in 2018, BiH had only two migrant shelters available with a total of 400 beds: the Salakovac Refugee Reception Center and Delijaš Asylum Centre (Santic et al. 2022, 527; UNHCR n.d.-a). However, the accommodation capacity was inadequate for the increased migrant influx in 2018 (Nezirović et al. 2021, 7). The number of migrant arrivals, which was around 2,000 from April to August 2018, drastically increased in September and October to around 3,700 and 5,000 arrivals, respectively, exceeding the accommodation capacity of 400 beds (IOM 2023a). In fact, many migrants had to sleep outside the available shelters, lacking access to safe and dignified shelter, as well as essentials such as drinking water, sanitation, electricity, heating, food, and clothing (Nezirović et al. 2021, 7). According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an estimated 4,400 migrants in the Una-Sana Canton of BiH lived without formal accommodation, basic hygiene, or access to official asylum procedures (2018, 14). This assessment was similarly reported by UN agencies (United Nations Bosnia and Herzegovina 2018, 2-3).

In response, new TRCs were established by the IOM to accommodate the increased number of migrants: TRC Ušivak and Blažuj in Sarajevo Canton; and TRC Bira, Borići, Sedra, Lipa, Mira, and Blažuj in Una-Sana Canton (Nezirović et al. 2021, 7; Santic et al. 2022, 527-528; UNHCR n.d.-a). Despite these efforts, reception capacities often remained insufficient for a considerable period due to intermittent closures and renovations (Santic et al. 2022, 527). Chart 2 illustrates the evolution of accommodation capacity and occupancy for the period 2018 to 2024. Although Chart 2, which aggregates data for all shelters, illustrates that the occupancy of accommodations was below capacity in 2019 and 2020, residents were not evenly housed, and some facilities exceeded their intended accommodation capacity. For instance, TRC Usivak accommodated 1,316 people in December 2019 despite having a capacity of only 800 (Hodzic 2020, 93). Similarly, TRC Blažuj accepted 1,709 migrants at the end of June 2020 and 3,407 migrants at the end of January 2021, though its capacities were only for 1,400 migrants and 2,000 migrants at those times, respectively (United Nations Bosnia and Herzegovina 2020b, 3; United Nations Bosnia and Herzegovina 2021a). Hodzic questioned the living conditions of migrants in TRCs where migrants were accommodated exceeding their capacities (Hodzic 2020, 93).

However, this TRC housing situation has improved. Along with the Asylum Center Delijaš and Refugee Reception Center Salakovac, the TRCs at Borici, Lipa, Ušivak, and Blažuj remain open, providing around 4,500 beds in total (IOM 2023b; UNHCR n.d.-a). The reception capacity seems to be sufficient to accommodate incoming migrants, as the occupancy rate of all remaining TRCs has hovered between 15 and 55 percent between January to November 2023 (IOM 2023a). All the interviewed NGO officers agreed that shelter capacity was no longer an issue (NGO Officer A, Usivak, 2023; NGO Officer B, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer C, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer D, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023, 1; NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023). The NGO officers highlighted that accommodation capacities have not changed drastically despite the closures of some TRCs, since renovations at TRC Lipa allow for larger accommodation capacities (NGO Officer A, Usivak, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023; NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023). The NGO officers further emphasized that the short duration of migrant stays in BiH also contributed to manageable accommodation (NGO Officer A, Usivak, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023; NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023).

Figure 2: Accommodation Capacity and Occupancy (2018-2024). Data extracted from the International Organization for Migration [IOM 2023a, 2022c, 2021; United Nations Bosnia and Herzegovina 2020a, 2020b, 2019a, 2019b]

Figure 2: Accommodation Capacity and Occupancy (2018-2024).Data extracted from the International Organization for Migration [IOM 2023a, 2022c, 2021; United Nations Bosnia and Herzegovina 2020a, 2020b, 2019a, 2019b]

Accommodation Quality

Despite improvements, poor living conditions in TRCs––including of sanitary facilities, heating systems, and accommodations––remain important concerns.BiH’s TRCs have continued to receive criticism from the international community for not meeting basic international standards (Nezirović et al. 2021, 7-8; Council of Europe 2019). For instance, single men in TRC Usivak, who were housed separately from unaccompanied minors and families, experienced unclean rooms without operational heating systems, whereas accommodations for other men were relatively clean and heated. In addition, single men’s sanitary facilities exhibited substandard conditions (Migrants A, Usivak, 2023; Migrants B, Usivak, 2023; Migrants C, Usivak, 2023; Migrants D, Usivak, 2023; Migrants E, Usivak, 2023). One migrant who lived in TRC Usivak for more than six months shared that such inadequacies were a source of mental health challenges for residents (Migrants A, Usivak, 2023). Another migrant stated, “This is not the environment where normal people can live. How can officers of international organizations and authorities overlook such an environment without improving [the living conditions]?” (Migrants B, Usivak, 2023). In addition, some migrants mentioned that limited operating hours and the narrow range of medical practices provided reduced access to healthcare in the camp (Migrants C, Usivak, 2023; Migrants D, Usivak, 2023; Migrants E, Usivak, 2023; Migrants F, Sarajevo, 2023).

Migrant concerns with TRCs failing to adhere to international standards also extend to those specifically designed for single men, such as TRC Blažuj and TRC Lipa (Migrants A, Usivak, 2023; Migrants B, Usivak, 2023; Migrants G, Sarajevo, 2023; Migrants H, Sarajevo, 2023; Migrants I, Sarajevo, 2023; Migrants J, Sarajevo, 2023). Migrants shared similar concerns about their accommodations, noting that the facilities often lacked adequate heating systems and private spaces, were unclean, and had unsanitary toilets. Bellini also argues that, even though renovations in 2021 had improved the facilities in TRC Lipa, the camp still fails to offer private spaces for the residents (2023, 38). Residents are not provided keys to lock their accommodation rooms, which lack basic furniture such as tables and chairs (Bellini 2023, 38). According to migrants, these conditions have resulted in migrants avoiding TRCs designated for single men, seeking placement in other TRCs that accommodate families and minors (Migrants B, Usivak, 2023; Migrants I, Sarajevo, 2023; Migrants J, Sarajevo, 2023). NGO officers who worked in TRC Usivak and Blažuj also recognized these issues, emphasizing that living conditions in TRCs need improvement (NGO Officer A, Usivak, January 31, 2023; NGO Officer B, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023).

NGO officers expressed concerns that these situations might be exacerbated by the transfer of management to Bosnian authorities (NGO Officer A, Usivak, 2023; NGO Officer B, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023). One officer noted, “The BiH authority has the capacity to manage the camps, but the question is whether they can maintain the quality following international standards, underscoring the need for vigilant monitoring by the international community” (NGO Officer D, Sarajevo, 2023).

The IOM and SFA have been taking action to address the living conditions in the TRCs. In 2023, the IOM facilitated the relocation of migrants in TRC Blažuj to collective accommodations to improve their stay. The IOM enhanced the heating system throughout the center, and maintained hygiene with the active participation of migrant volunteers. In the same year, the IOM, in coordination with the DRC, provided medical assistance to migrants in TRC Usivak after the working hours of the doctors in the camp. The IOM also installed door knobs with internal locking in the sanitary containers in the family zone of the center to ensure better safety and privacy, which reflected the recommendations made by migrants (IOM 2023a). In TRC Borici, the IOM conducted inspections of all radiators in accommodation rooms and made repairs where necessary to ensure optimal temperatures inside the shelter (IOM 2023a). By contrast, insufficient information is available to the public about the improvement measures taken in TRC Lipa. The NGO officers interviewed emphasized that information regarding the situation in TRC Lipa was limited given the MoS’s restricted access to TRC Lipa by NGOs and the media access to the facility after assuming control (NGO Officer D, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023; NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023). NGO officers strongly insisted that more information be made public to enable monitoring by the international community and assistance, if needed (NGO Officer D, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023; NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023).


Implementation of Unified Migration Management

Institutional Complexity

Another identified challenge is the implementation of unified migration management. Despite well-designed institutional capacities, legislation, and policies, the decentralized authority and poor coordination among various institutions in BiH have undermined the effective implementation of migration policies and hampered BiH’s migration management. Many scholars and the IOM have cited BiH’s complex governance system and the lack of coordination and communication among administrative entities as weakening the success of BiH’s migration response (Korajlic and Smailbegović 2020, 22; Nezirović et al. 2021, 10-13; Hodzic 2020, 82; IOM 2022a).

BiH’s complex governance system poses challenges for migration management. BiH’s central government has limited power, and the majority of government responsibilities are transferred to two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), where most Bosniaks and Croats reside; and Republika Srpska (RS), the main Serb entity (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg et al. (MFAGDL) 2014, 244). The FBiH and RS have separate constitutions, laws, and institutional structures, with the FBiH particularly decentralized among ten cantonal governments. In addition, BiH also has a self-governing administrative unit, the Brčko District, under its sovereignty (MFAGDL 2014, 244). Thus, BiH has more than three presidents, 14 separate parliaments, and hundreds of deputies and ministers. Authorities and responsibilities are decentralized, with some existing at the state or entity level and others at the level of cantons and municipalities (Nezirović et al. 2021, 15). Korajlic and Smailbegović (2020, 28) argue that, as a result, BiH faces a considerable level of institutional paralysis, with coordination between the different administrative entities, agencies, or municipalities significantly lacking.

This decentralized system is a legacy of the Bosnian War in the 1990s, when Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and ethnically mixed inhabitants fought against each other. Korajlic and Smailbegović (2020, 21) described BiH as being formed by a “de-facto poorly-implemented consociational power-sharing agreement among the former belligerents.” Competing visions for the organization of the country have stymied post-conflict efforts to enhance close cooperation between these groups and their administrative units, leaving BiH in a state of frozen conflict between competing nationalistic ideologies and decentralized authority (Korajlic and Smailbegović 2020, 21-22). Despite hostilities ending a quarter-century ago, the central government still lacks cohesive governance even over crucial functions like border controls and foreign policy (Korajlic and Smailbegović 2020, 21-22).

Lack of Unified Response

Although a unified strategy for migration management at the national-level is crucial to respond to migration influxes, BiH’s political complexity has led to both a lack of a unified response to migration issues at the national-level as well as a lack of coordination among authorities. With all TRCs relocated in the FBiH (especially in Bosniak-majority entities) and none in the RS, the main burden of humanitarian response has fallen on authorities in the FBiH (Nezirović et al. 2021, 9-11). Municipalities in the RS, as well as some Croat-majority municipalities in the FBiH, refuse to improve border management and open humanitarian facilities, rejecting the state’s proposal to redistribute migrants and refugees throughout BiH (Nezirović et al. 2021, 9-11). For instance, the Serb-majority Bosanski Petrovac, a municipality located in the Una-Sana Canton, rejected the relocation of migrants from TRC Miral and Bira in 2019 (Nezirović et al. 2021, 11), while the Croat-majority Herzegovina Neretca Canton (HNC) opposed plans to relocate migrants from TRC Lipa (Radio Slobodna Evropa 2020). Authorities struggle to harmonize the views of opposing regions and reach a consensus on migration management. Moreover, the protection and services provided to migrants are not harmonized and lack unified quality. According to Hodzic, accommodations for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers vary from place to place and include many ad hoc solutions (2020, 92). Three NGO officers observed differences in protection projects allowed by NGOs and coordination with state institutions across regions, which required NGOs to adjust projects among regions, occasionally resulting in significant limitations on protection services (NGO Officer A, Usivak, 2023, 1; NGO Officer B, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer F, Geneva, 2023).

In addition, the literature has highlighted poor coordination and communication between the different levels of government. The OSCE argued that the MoS has frequently failed to provide instructions on proper procedures and legal protocols to cantonal and local authorities, and has also failed to ensure coordination among relevant agencies. This insufficient coordination among authorities has led to migrants being barred from new accommodations during the relocation process (2018, 20). For instance, when TRC Lipa closed for renovation, the MoS of BiH announced plans to relocate migrants to a facility in HNC. However, HNC and local authorities claimed to have learned of the plan only on the day of the relocation, with the Minister of Finance and Treasury sharing that there was no decision by the Council of Ministers regarding such a relocation (Nezirović et al. 2021, 11). Similarly, in 2020, the Operational Group for Coordination of Activities and Supervision of the Migrant Crisis in the Una-Sana Canton––which is composed of officers from cantonal authority, IOs, and NGOs––decided to close TRC Bira without the approval of competent state institutions (Cikotic 2020, 14).

Moreover, the lack of coordination has caused an inappropriate distribution of resources. The OSCE concluded that poor coordination among actors led to an insufficient distribution of human and material resources to law enforcement agencies such as the SFA, border police, and local police forces (2018, 36-37). According to Hodzic, the border police suffers from an insufficient number of officers and technical equipment to effectively control and record migrants (2020, 90-91). National health-care and social work centers, according to the OSCE, have similarly received insufficient resources, leaving them unable to provide adequate support and humanitarian aid and to NGOs and informal groups of volunteers assuming their responsibilities (OSCE 2018, 24-33, 42-45). These disparities in the distribution of funds have resulted in disputes, with the MoS expressing dissatisfaction in 2019 that financial aid from the EU was being spent by different entities without the knowledge of state institutions (Center for Security Studies, BiH 2019).

The MoS of BiH at the time, Selmo Cikotic, stated that the MoS had taken several steps to establish communications with cantonal institutions (2020, 10). He explained that “a visit was made to the Una-Sana and Sarajevo cantons to analyze the situation on the ground and launch several activities related to management of the migrant crisis” along with frequent meetings with relevant stakeholders (Cikotic 2020, 10-11). The minister also stated that the MoS had closely coordinated with border police and other relevant security institutions “to exercise more complete control over the in-country movement and accommodation of foreign nationals” (Cikotic 2020, 10).

Despite these efforts, NGO officers are concerned that the lack of unified political response and coordination among institutions may continue to challenge timely and effective decision-making as Bosnian authorities assume management responsibilities (NGO Officer C, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer D, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023). According to the officers, although regional tensions have eased, there remains an absence of a unified state-wide response system (NGO Officer D, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023). Close coordination and communication among various institutions regarding migration management were also not observed (NGO Officer C, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer D, Sarajevo, 2023). The NGO officers claimed that critical decisions regarding migration management must be made by the central government to enable swift responses to migrant demands (NGO Officer C, Sarajevo, 2023, 1; NGO Officer D, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023). They highlighted that migration flows in BiH are impacted by many external incidents in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, which requires authorities to grasp complex situations in a timely manner and take unified action (NGO Officer C, Sarajevo, 2023; NGO Officer E, Geneva, 2023). 



Lastly, I would like to acknowledge the limitations inherent in this study. While this study reviews the literature and analyzes data on BiH’s migration management capacity, this work primarily relies on fieldwork at one of the TRCs and interviews with NGO officers and migrants in BiH. Although the interviewees were chosen from various NGOs, backgrounds, and ages, this methodology could have given rise to potential biases owing to the selected interview participants and reliance on a limited range of sources. Moreover, the names of the interviewees and NGOs are kept confidential due to their requests, which could obstruct clarities and further examinations of their comments. In addition, although this study explored the capability of Bosnian authorities to govern migration management – with a special focus on living conditions in TRCs and the implementation of unified migration management – other political factors may be relevant in this analysis. For instance, exploring BiH’s relationship with the EU, which significantly influences migration management decision-making through funding and technical support, could provide additional insights into the capabilities and challenges of Bosnian authorities in migration management. Further scrutiny of these aspects in future studies will enrich our understanding of the complexities involved in BiH’s migration management.



In this study, I have explored migration management in BiH and the assumption of management responsibility from the IOM, focusing on whether the Bosnian government has developed the capabilities to effectively govern migration. Fieldwork at a TRC and interviews with NGO officers and migrants in BiH, along with an analysis of the literature and data, has revealed that Bosnian authorities have generally developed such capabilities. However, certain challenges persist, including the provision of living conditions that adhere to international standards, and the implementation of unified responses to migration issues with effective coordination among various authorities.

To realize effective migration management by the Bosnian authority, the MoS, as the leading institution for migration management, should identify and recognize prevailing gaps in TRC management, which involves actively engaging with migrants, NGO officers, and other stakeholders to ensure that their perspectives and voices are heard and considered. Additionally, information regarding the governing situation at TRC Lipa should be made accessible to the public, to enable vigilant monitoring by the international community of the living environment’s consistency with international standards. Furthermore, to ensure accommodation quality, the MoS should ensure that the training currently provided by the IOM and other entities addresses gaps in relevant officers’ capabilities. IO and NGO operations should also be maintained even after the MoS takes full responsibility for migration management, so that the transitions are implemented gradually and TRC quality is maintained. Moreover, the MoS should clarify the division of responsibilities among different institutions, establish clear operational reporting lines and information-sharing structures among existing institutions, and establish a periodic forum where actors involved in migration responses can gather and coordinate.

*This article was edited by Diana Chavez-Varela (Princeton University) and Pranav Bhandarkar (Princeton University).

About the Author

Rio Otuska picture

Rio Otsuka is a lawyer specialized in human rights and refugee laws as well as international dispute resolutions. She has supported asylum seekers and refugees in Japan and Bosnia and Herzegovina. She holds a BA in Laws from the University of Tokyo and is expected to obtain a Master in International and Development Studies with a specialization in human rights and humanitarianism from the Geneva Graduate Institute.

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