Preparing for -15°C: Volunteers scramble to bring heat to migrants in Sarajevo

A volunteer installing a wood stove in an abandoned building where migrants have found shelter in Sarajevo. Photo credit: AidBrigade
A volunteer installing a wood stove in an abandoned building where migrants have found shelter in Sarajevo. Photo credit: AidBrigade

As the first snow of the season falls over Sarajevo, volunteers are racing to provide warmth to the increasing number of homeless migrants that are stuck in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most of the migrants are trying to make their way to neighbouring Croatia, which unlike Bosnia is part of the European Union, but have found it difficult to make it past the border. Since there is not enough space in Sarajevo’s shelters, between 100 and 150 people are preparing to spend the harsh Bosnian winter in abandoned buildings, according to local volunteers.

Volunteers from a small collective called AidBrigade, which was formed six months ago and is made up of both local and international volunteers, are now rushing to insulate the buildings where migrants have found shelter and outfit them with wood stoves.

“We’re rushing to insulate the buildings as best we can”

Roos Ykema is AidBrigade’s coordinator. After volunteering to help migrants in her native Netherlands, in Greece and in Jordan, she decided to lend a hand in Bosnia.


The crisis in Bosnia is quite new. The route through Bosnia to Croatia only started becoming more popular last year, after the route through Serbia to Hungary became very hard due to Hungary’s crackdown. We saw the first arrivals in Bosnia last winter, and then the numbers increased in the spring and summer. They mainly come from Pakistan, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan.

Many people are unable to cross into Croatia, despite trying repeatedly – some have told me they’ve tried and failed up to 30 times. Some have come back with injuries from being beaten by policemen. They also tell us that the police steal their money and papers, and break their phones. So they are forced to come back and end up stuck in Sarajevo or in the border towns of Bihac and Velika Kledusha.

Migrants gather to eat a meal prepared by volunteers from AidBrigade near Istiqlal mosque in Sarajevo. Photo credit: AidBrigade


In Sarajevo, about 500 people live in a camp run by the International Organization for Migration in coordination with the government. There’s also a shelter run by a Bosnian NGO that houses around 100 more people. In both cases, priority is given to families. But there are still about 100 to 150 people – mainly men from Pakistan, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan – who live on the streets. And we expect numbers to increase during the winter months since fewer people will attempt the border crossing, which usually involves about 10 days of walking and hiding in the woods. More people will also likely return to Sarajevo from the border towns.

The winter here is long and harsh, with temperatures regularly dropping to -15° Celcius. [Editor’s Note: On November 29, temperatures were already expected to dip to -13°]. Refugees have taken shelter in abandoned buildings around the city. They don’t have running water, toilets or heating. Some of these squats house two or three people, others 20.

Volunteers insulate buildings and install wood stoves to protect occupants from the wind and the cold. Photo credit: AidBrigade.


We’ve started by focusing on 15 of the bigger squats, so we can bring heat to as many people as possible. We’re rushing to insulate them as best we can, covering the openings to keep the wind out and installing wood stoves. A lot of people still use wood stoves here, so wood is easily available. Right now, we’ve got enough funds to buy wood for a month or two. [Editor’s Note: AidBrigade is funded through private donations.]

A delivery of wood for the stoves. Photo credit: AidBrigade


“People in Sarajevo feel the refugees’ pain – they experienced war themselves, not so long ago”


Apart from some cases where neighbors have complained, the squats have been largely tolerated. Some of the refugees are afraid, so they only go into the buildings at nightfall and leave early in the morning, but at other squats, the neighbours give them access to water and let them recharge their phones in their homes. People in Sarajevo have reacted very well to the refugees’ presence; I’ve seen locals offer them a blanket here, a bag of rice there. They feel the refugees’ pain – after all, they experienced war themselves not so long ago, so their situation brings back a lot of memories.

Nevertheless, few refugees want to stay in Bosnia – it’s extremely rare for anyone to be granted asylum here. People register as asylum seekers to get temporary papers, but the authorities don’t let the procedures go very far.


Authorities in Bosnia and Herzigovina detected more than 21, 000 new arrivals in Bosnia and Herzegovina between January and October 2018, with numbers on a steady rise. The United Nations estimates that between 4,500 and 6,000 refugees and migrants remain in the country and are in need of assistance. A recent UNHCR report noted that the Bosnian asylum process is full of challenges, including insufficient room in shelters, a lack of healthcare and the requirement that asylum seekers provide home addresses.

Article written by Gaelle Faure.