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Welcome to Bosnatanamo: Migrant Detention in Bosnia



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7 Minutes

Guest post by Darryl Li, anthropologist and lawyer, currently Associate Research Scholar and Robina Visiting Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School. Darryl is writing a book on transnational jihad movements in the international legal order, based on ethnographic and archival research in Bosnia and several other countries. Darryl is on Twitter @dcli.

In recent months, the long-running migration crisis in Europe has reached new levels of urgency―especially concerning the land route through the Balkans, long overshadowed by the ongoing disasters in the Mediterranean. Hungary’s rush to fence off its borders has driven Croatia and Serbia to trade accusations over responsibility for managing the flow of people and even to engage in a brief customs war. So far, refugees have largely skirted around neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. But if Hungary’s southwestern borders are finally sealed, Bosnia could suddenly become a transit country along a new route to Slovenia via Croatia. Beneath Bosnian officials’ attempts to project an air of readiness are signs of looming disarray: security minister Dragan Mektić has suggested that the country may tolerate only 5,000 refugees staying on its soil before closing its borders altogether.

In Bosnia, in particular, issues of migration, border securitization, and Islamophobia have been quietly playing out in their own way in recent years, also against the backdrop of crises in Syria. The centerpiece of Bosnia’s migration control regime thus far has been a detention center for migrants located in a wooded area behind a football stadium on the outskirts of Sarajevo in the neighborhood of Lukavica (a site specifically for asylum seekers only opened more recently, in Delijaš). I first visited the Lukavica center in 2009 while it was still under construction. The facility can now house 120 detainees and its supervisor duly reassures visitors that it runs according to ‘international standards.’ Over the main gate fly the flags of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the European Union.

The Lukavica migration center (photo: www.sps.gov.ba)
The presence of the EU flag and the concomitant absence of that of the United States together encapsulate how Bosnia’s border and immigration regime has been driven by two different external agendas. The first is the EU’s desire to outsource and export migration control policies to states on its periphery seeking eventual accession. The second, more shadowy, is the US-led ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT), which relies on a complex transnational network of outsourced detention practices.

These two agendas merge most starkly in the story of the prison’s first and longest-held detainee, Imad al-Husin, who was arrested and taken to Lukavica on this day seven years ago and remains deprived of liberty without clear legal basis despite winning a case in the European Court of Human Rights in 2012. He has taken to calling the facility ‘Bosnatanamo,’ in part because of the extensive use of secret evidence to justify detentions.

Al-Husin, better known as Abu Hamza, was born in Syria and is the public face of the ‘mujahidin,’ foreign Islamist volunteers―mostly Arabs―who fought on the side of the predominantly Muslim Bosnian government during the 1992-1995 war. Most of the mujahidin left Bosnia after the war, but several dozen like Abu Hamza stayed in the country, naturalized, and married local women (unusually, Abu Hamza came to the region in the 1980s to study in socialist Yugoslavia). He has never been charged with a crime. Since the end of the war, the US and its allies have been anxious to rid the country of these so-called foreign fighters, targeting not just ex-combatants, but also Arab aid workers. As in discussions today about the foreign fighter phenomenon in Syria and Iraq, there is a widespread tendency to conflate foreigners’ participation in armed conflicts in se with the commission of war crimes or terrorism (Abu Hamza, like many Syrian Islamists of his generation, is also a critic of the self-declared Islamic State).

Abu Hamza and his family (courtesy of the al-Husin family)
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Washington pressured Bosnian authorities to hand over six Algerians, who were then transferred to Guantánamo despite a Sarajevo court having ordered their release. One of the men became the eponymous plaintiff in the landmark US Supreme Court case, Boumediene v. Bush, and they were all eventually released years later without ever being charged with a crime. The blatantly extralegal treatment of the Algerians elicited widespread criticism, including censure from the Human Rights Chamber of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Since then, the US has sought the expulsion of Arabs it deems suspicious by changing Bosnia’s laws rather than circumventing them outright. Numerous cables released by Wikileaks detail the US Embassy’s desire to expel Abu Hamza in particular. At the same time, Bosnia was keen to satisfy EU demands for an expanded migration control regime in order to end visa restrictions for Bosnians traveling to the Schengen zone.

As a result, Bosnia empowered a special commission to revoke naturalizations granted since independence that stripped hundreds of people of citizenship, many of them born in predominantly Muslim countries. Unlike more recent legislative efforts aimed at revoking citizenship in the UK and Australia, the commission didnt have to establish that individuals had engaged in unlawful or even suspicious acts―instead, it could revoke citizenship if any formal or procedural requirements appeared to be amiss. Moreover, the citizenship commission’s decisions were summary and appeal rights were limited; although the commission was a Bosnian government entity, three of its nine members were foreign, including a US army officer.

The law precluded denationalization if it would result in statelessness. But this provides little consolation, for the goal of the US was not only to remove suspicious Arabs from Bosnia, but to deliver them to the custody of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. As I argue in a contribution to a forthcoming volume, such transnational networks of carceral practices force us to revise state-centered theories of sovereign exception and cosmopolitanism in order to attend to practices of carceral circulation. On a much larger scale, the current refugee crisis shows that border control is often about where to send people as much as its about how to keep them out.

In parallel with the denationalization campaign, Bosnia dramatically expanded its immigration detention regime with new legislative provisions authorizing indefinite detention of non-citizens declared a threat to national security. Bosnia also set up specialized border patrol and immigration police agencies funded, trained, and equipped by the US and EU. Brussels donated €1.2 million towards the construction of the Lukavica facility.

Lukavica was an especially striking development. The ample literature on post-war Bosnia has largely focused on how nationalist divisions between Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats―especially around sensitive issues such as war crimes―have undermined the development of a centralized state in favor of ethnically-based ‘entities.’ Yet when it comes to migrant detention, nationalist elites have achieved a striking degree of concordance: Bosnia has had an immigration detention center since 2008, but 20 years after the war, the central government still lacks a prison of its own to house convicts.

In October 2008, Abu Hamza lost an appeal against his denationalization before the Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Two days later, he was declared a threat to national security and taken to Lukavica. Months later, a deportation order to Syria was issued. Thus, an immigration detention center built with the justification of temporarily housing migrants caught crossing the border was first used to indefinitely detain long-term residents of the country with family ties.

About a dozen others Arab long-term residents of Bosnia were sent to Lukavica, detained anywhere from a few months to a few years at a time. Some were comrades of Abu Hamza from the war; others had never fought. None were charged with crimes. Waves of hunger strikes came and went. I visited them multiple times between 2009 and 2012 and witnessed their struggles with the Bosnian legal system and international human rights mechanisms, as well as their frustration at the inability to see the evidence against them, their dread over being separated from their Bosnian families, and the lingering uncertainty over their fate. Gradually more recent migrants started arriving at the facility, people caught crossing the border. Many of them were also from the Middle East.

The Arab Spring provided the Bosnian government with a convenient alibi to more easily deport some of my interview subjects to Tunisia and Egypt under the reasoning that there was no longer any reason to be concerned over those countries’ human rights records. Strikingly, the European Court of Human Rights in 2012 even permitted the forcible repatriation of an Iraqi on the reasoning that the human rights situation in his hometown of Kirkuk had improved enough to render his return ‘safe’―in a city now on the front lines of the war against ISIS.

Abu Hamza, however, was able to persuade Strasbourg that he should not be returned to Syria. Moreover, the court struck down the statutory provision that permitted detention of non-citizens on national security grounds. This left the Bosnian authorities without any basis for detaining him. Yet instead of releasing him or charging him with a crime, they announced their intention to deport Abu Hamza to a third country. But over three years later, no state has come forward to accept him, thus effectively amounting to the same indefinite detention. Most of the evidence remains secret from both Abu Hamza and his lawyers, although strenuous advocacy efforts by family and friends keep his story from fading entirely out of the public eye.

Trapped behind bars for as long as the Lukavica prison has been in operation, Abu Hamza is now one of the most consistent fixtures of the place. When I saw him last in 2012, he said that recently arrived migrants took to calling him ‘shaykh’ in part due to his carefully cultivated appearance of Islamic piety (long beard, jalabiyya robe, and so on). Being fluent in both Arabic and the local language, Abu Hamza was often able to act as an interpreter and mediator between detainees and the prison authorities. Depending on how the current migration crisis unfolds, he may soon find himself with a great many more neighbors in Lukavica.

Despite US, EU, and Bosnian policies depicting him as a foreign threat to the country, inside the detention facility Abu Hamza has become a sort of accidental ambassador for the country, helping to greet and liaise with new arrivals. And while Abu Hamza’s ongoing detention is in flagrant disregard for a judgment from the European Court of Human Rights, it’s the result of policy imperatives that are no less European―and American―in origin.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Li, D. (2015) Welcome to Bosnatanamo: Migrant Detention in Bosnia. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2015/10/welcome (Accessed [date]).

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