After long dangerous journeys alone, refugee and migrant children in Bosnia determined to succeed

UNICEF supported social worker/guardians provide children with vital care and emotional support

Almir Panjeta
Lejla has acted as a guardian to approximately 400 unaccompanied refugee and migrant children
UNICEF/Almir Panjeta
12 February 2020

Faisal* is a thirteen-year-old boy who left his home in Pakistan alone. His goal was to reunite with his brother who lives in Europe and to get a better education.  

"I completed 7th grade in Pakistan, and I plan on continuing my education as soon as I reach my destination. I would like to be an engineer and I believe that my wish will come true,” he says. “I want a better education and better living conditions and that's why I embarked on this journey. One of my brothers already lives in a European country and that is where I am going.”

Faisal arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina in June 2019, after an 11-month long journey. He is now staying at the Borići Reception Center in Bihać, near the Croatian border, along with other unaccompanied refugee and migrant children.

Faisal is the youngest boy at the reception center.

Currently there are 350 unaccompanied refugee and migrant children at the reception centers in Bihać, Cazin and Velika Kladuša. Over the past year, approximately 2,740 young refugees and migrants who arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone have benefitted from 24-hour, 7-day a week care and protection services in five centres across the country.

Farook*, who also stays at the Borići reception center, is the oldest child in a family of seven siblings.

"My journey began three years ago. At the time I was 15. I’ve been through a lot of things; I worked in a factory in Turkey for a while. I am settled here for some eight months now. I had an accident; I fell and broke my ankles, so I couldn’t move forward,” he says. 

Farook recently turned 18 and plans to continue his journey once his injuries have recovered.

"I feel better now, I can walk. I have completed part of my education in Pakistan, I have not gotten into college, but I would love to continue my education when I arrive at my destination. All I want is a better future,” he says.

Gueardian Lejla helps refugee children
UNICEF/Almir Panjeta
Lejla has acted as a guardian to approximately 400 unaccompanied refugee and migrant children in 2019.

"They are children and teenagers, with desires and hopes,”

Lejla Hafizovic is a social worker at the Center for Social Work in Bihać and was appointed as Farook's guardian during his stay.

When unaccompanied and separated children arrive at a centre, one of the social workers becomes their legal guardian to help the child access health and education services and understand their rights, including access to asylum procedures.

Lejla explains that now that Farook has turned 18, he will no longer be categorized as an 'unaccompanied minor' but instead as a 'single man.’

"He is now legally out of our jurisdiction, but we do stay in touch,” she says. “They stay in touch once they move to another country and settle down by sending us a message via Facebook, or by reporting to another organization.”

In addition to helping them access services, Lejla and the other social worker/guardians also ensure the children have clothing, shoes and other necessities. They are one of the few people the children have in their lives that they can trust, confide-in and receive good advice from. 

"First and foremost, they are children, teenagers, in no way different from other teenagers with their desires and hopes,” says Lejla.

UNICEF and partners, including Save The Children and Church World Service support this important work by providing funds to employ the social workers and training front line service providers on how to respond to the unique needs of unaccompanied refugee and migrant children.

UNICEF/Almir Panjeta
Currently there are 350 unaccompanied refugee and migrant children at the reception centers in Bihać, Cazin and Velika Kladuša.

Support needed for growing numbers of refugee and migrant children

There has been a growing number of refugees and migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina since migration routes through the Balkans to Western Europe were closed in 2017.

Last year, some 29,200 refugees and migrants were registered by national authorities, which marked a 20 per cent increase is registrations compared to the previous year. The vast majority of these people, including children, come from conflict affected countries and have endured horrendous journeys.

It is estimated that there are approximately 500 to 600 unaccompanied or separated refugee and migrant children stranded in Bosnia and Herzegovina at any given time. While hundreds of these children stay in overcrowded reception facilities, others are sleeping rough with little or no access to support. National services are overstretched and cannot adequately respond to the growing needs.

UNICEF continues to work with government authorities, other UN agencies and local organizations in Bosnia and Herzegovina to respond to the immediate humanitarian needs of migrant and refugee children and their families, including unaccompanied children.  UNICEF helps to provide child protection services to all children on the move including by supporting Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Centres for Social Welfare.UNICEF is also working to strengthen national child protection, health and education systems to ensure all vulnerable children in the country have access to these vital services.

2020’s humanitarian appeal to support refugee and migrant children across Europe, for Bosnia and Herzegovina is approximately 5 million USD. Only 31% of the 2019 appeal for Bosnia and Herzegovina was funded.



*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy and safety of children.