Today thousands of children around the world not only have to face the horrors of conflict which force them to leave behind their homes, but they also suffer a long and perilous journey in search of safety & a new home. The psychological trauma that results from this can be difficult for any children to endure. That is why this World Refugee Day, we are standing up for the rights of refugee children like Selma*, and raising awareness of our work to help them recover and have a brighter future.

Selma*’s story

“I was not afraid!” – 11 year old Selma* said passionately as she spoke about the two days her family spent in a detention unit on the Croatian border. She even helped in translating between her parents and border police!

Selma*, the eldest of her siblings, had left her home in Iraq 2 years ago with her parents and two sisters- Hanan* is 8, and Hiba* is 6. Her parents were looking for a better place for their three daughters to grow up. Their life on the route was not without difficulties, but they made good progress until they came to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Here, they got stuck in the north-western town of Bihac, in close proximity to border with Croatia, a European Union country. And yet, this family is desperate to continue their journey- so much so that they have tried the so-called “game” 17 times. This game has only one goal for migrants and refugees - to cross the Bosnian-Croatian border and continue their journey towards Western European countries such as Germany, France and Sweden.

Sadly Selma*s family was caught and returned to BiH from the border on each of the 17 times they had tried to cross it.

“Being a family with children, we weren’t exposed to physical violence, but we were returned without our possessions. Without phones, money, even the sleeping bags - they took everything. Once we were detained for two days in a room without any windows, we didn’t know if it was day or night. This was difficult for the kids, my youngest daughter has a fear of closed-in spaces, she cried and begged to be let out, but she wasn’t allowed,” says Asiya*, Selma*’s mother.

Thousands of refugees and migrants travelling through the Western Balkans Route have testified to the irregular push-backs that take place at various borders in the region. Thousands of people returned from the countries along the route without being given an opportunity to seek asylum. Hundreds also complained about the use of excessive force by border guards, as they would push and beat people with their hands and batons, as well as taking away their possessions- especially their money and phones.

Selma’s family will keep trying to cross the border, as they are not only looking for a safer and better place to live in, but also a place where Hanan* will get the medical treatment that she needs. “Because of Hanan’s* treatment, we want to go to Luxemburg. She has a problem with her spine since birth and cannot grow properly,” explains Asiya*.

In Bihac, all three girls are enrolled in a local school. Selma* likes it there and she tells us “It’s nice in school, we play and learn. I like math and English best. English I can’t write well, but I can speak,” She also adds that she sees herself as a dentist in the future.

She doesn’t have many friends, only one in the camp, but she knows what makes a good friend “They play together nicely and they don’t fight.”

Selma* (11) and her sisters Hanan* (8) and Hiba* (6) in their refugee camp in Bihac, north-western Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo credits: Vahid Ponjevic/Save the Children

*Names are changed in order to protect children’s identity

Save the Children’s support to migrant and refugee families

Selma*’s family currently stays in a reception centre in Bihac. For families with children staying at the Bihac centre, Save the Children works in partnership with UNICEF to run a mobile Child Friendly Space. Child Friendly Spaces provide a safe environment for young children where they can regain a sense of normalcy and structure through organized activities of playing, socialising and learning. Here they can express their fears and reasons for joy. This way, children can rebuild their resilience that will help them develop further.

Save the Children’s team comes on a daily basis to set up a workshop space and help children with their homework, conduct various educational activities or facilitate art projects or fun games. All the activities are carefully created to help children overcome trauma and better cope with dynamics of a life in a migrant and refugee reception centre.

Over 34,000 migrants and refugees reached Bosnia and Herzegovina since the begging of 2018 on their way towards Western European countries. Many of them are forced to temporarily stay in the country after being rejected entry to neighbouring Croatia.

Save the Children is working to provide support to migrant and refugee families with children and unaccompanied and separated children staying in the country. Our child protection team works 24/7 with over 260 unaccompanied and separated children (all of whom are boys staying in Bihac) as well as supporting other social protection centres and front line workers in providing adequate services to the most vulnerable children.

Ensuring no children are left outside education, Save the Children’s team also provide support to refugee and migrant children in school enrolment, including logistical support such as school escorts, transport, school meals and language assistance. For families with young children, we run three operational Mother and Baby Corners in the area, where families with babies and infants can get basic food and hygiene products and services.