Repatriation of War Orphans in Bosnia: Narratives of Nationhood and Care in Refugee Crises


  • Burcu Akan Ellis San Francisco State University



agency, structure, geographical mobility, inequality, student mobility, apprenticeship mobility


This study highlights the plight of children in state orphanages during conditions of war and its aftermath, in order to explore how state narratives trap children between contested notions of the best interests of the child, national belonging, and familial rights. This longitudinal study focuses on international media narratives covering a group of Bosnian orphans who were removed from the Bjelave orphanage in Sarajevo through a controversial German rescue mission in 1992. The orphans were provided temporary protection in Germany for five years but were repatriated to Bosnia in 1997 upon the Bosnian government’s request. In Bosnia, they were reintroduced into the national orphanage system, and eventually to the care of international NGOs. Their plight shows that narratives of care, national belonging and family rights are fundamental tools used to sustain state identities in the process of repatriation of refugees, leaving no voice or choice to the resilient children in question.


Metrics Loading ...

Author Biography

Burcu Akan Ellis, San Francisco State University

Professor, International Relations Department, San Francisco State University


Ababe, T. (2009). Orphanhood, Poverty and the Care Dilemma: Review of Global Policy Trends. Social Work and Society International Online Journal. 7(1), 70-85.

Barber, T. (1992). Snipers Kill Two Fleeing Orphans. The Independent. August 2. (Accessed 3 November 2017).

Beirens, H., S. Maas, S. Petronella & M. van der Velden. (2016). Study on the Temporary Protection Directive Final Report. European Commission. (Accessed 10 February 2017).

Bhutta, Z, W. K. & S. Benett. (2016). Children of War: Urgent Action is Needed to Save a Generation. The Lancet. 388 (10051), 1275–1276.

Bosnian Kids Will Return to Foreign Land: Home. (1996). Associated Press. October 14. (Accessed 10 January 2018)

Bosnian Orphans Arrive in Germany. (1992). UPI report. August 4. (Accessed 5 February 2017).

Braun, V. & V. Clarke. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative research in psychology 3(2): 77-101.

Burman, E. (1994). Innocents Abroad: Western Fantasies of Childhood and the Iconography of emergencies. Disasters, 18(3), 238-253.

Burns, J. (1992). The Serbian Campaign for Ethnic Purity Divides up a Busload of Orphans. The New York Times. August 2. (Accessed 7 December 2017).

Cherot, N. (2006). Transnational Adoptees: Global Biopolitical Orphans as an Activist Community? Cultural Machine, 8. (Accessed 3 February 2017).

Collcutt, D. (1997). "Bosnian Orphans Forced to Return Home. The Times. April 2.

Corritore, N. 2018. Bjelave Children: The Case is Still Open. September 21. (Accessed October 2, 2018).

Corritore, N. (2018). Bjelave's Children: Mother and Son Find Each Other. November 26. (Accessed 10 January 2019)

Cowell, A. (1997). Sarajevo's Orphans Return to a Bleak Future. The New York Times. April 30. (Accessed 30 November 2017).

Die Kinder von Sarajevo. (2017). MDR Ferhnsen TV Program, May 6. (Accessed 12 December 2018).

Dooley, A. 2013. We Are All Rwandans: Repatriation, National Identity, and the Plight of Rwanda's Transferred Children. Journal of Human Rights, 12(3), 309-318.

Efird, R. (2010). Distant Kin: Japan's "War Orphans" and the Limits of Ethnicity. Anthropological Quarterly, 83(4), 805-838.

Eggleston, R. (1997). Bosnia: German Provinces soon to Return Refugees. April 9.

Fantoni, C. (2015). Lost or Found: The Story of Bosnia's Forgotten Children. Balkandiskurs. March 24. (Accessed 3 December 2017).

Fenton, S. (2016). Hundreds of Child Refugees in Calais have UK asylum claims rejected by Home Office. The Independent. December 16.

Five Babies Perish in Sarajevo Orphanage Fire. (2007) CBCNews, April 22.

Graham-Harrison, E. (2016). "Aleppo's Underground Orphanage Offers a Haven for Children Bereaved by War." The Guardian. August 20. (Accessed 3 December 2018).

Hagen, C. (2017). This Orphanage Did More Than Find Homes for Children of the Holocaust. It Helped Them Reclaim Their Humanity. (Accessed 14 March 2017)

Hasanović, M., Z. Selimbašić, I. Pajević, E. Avdibegović & O. Sinanović. (2006). Psychological Disturbances of War-traumatized Children from Different Foster and Family Settings in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatian Medical Journal. 47 (1), 85-94.

Itoh, M. (2010). Japanese War Orphans in Manchuria Forgotten Victims of World War II. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hadzovic, E. (2012). Abandoned Twice: Bosnia's Orphans left in the Lurch. Balkan Insight. Nov 15. (Accessed 3 January 2018)

Hainey, D. (2016). Searching for Syria's Orphans. US News December 19. (Accessed 30 November 2018).

Keilson, H., & H. R. Sarphatie. (1992). Sequential Traumatization in Children: A Clinical and Statistical Follow-up Study on the Fate of the Jewish War Orphans in the Netherlands. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.

Koser, K. and R. Black. 1999. "Limits to Harmonization: The Temporary Protection of Refugees in the European Union." International Migration. 37 (3), 521-543.

Leslie, C. (2018). War-Torn Sarajevo's Camera Kids: Then and Now. The Guardian. July 16.

Leuninger, H. (1996). Bosnians in Germany: From Temporary Protection to Permanent Insecurity. No. 48

Macmillan, L. (2015). Children, Civilianhood and Humanitarian Securitization.,%20civilianhood%20and%20humanitarian%20securitization%20(AAM)%202015.pdf

McCleneghan, M. (2016). The Thousands of Former Child Refugees Deported to Afghanistan and Iraq. February 9. (Accessed November 29, 2018.)

Myers, L. (1993). Sarajevo Orphans Steal or Die. Chicago Tribune. December 1.

Regan, J. J. (2017). Turkey and Qatar Open Orphanage Compound for Syrian Kids. Trtworld. May 21. (Accessed 30 October 2018).

Richards, A. (2013). "Bombs and Babies: The Intercountry Adoption of Afghanistan's and Iraq's War Orphans" Journal of American Academic Matrimonial Law. (25), 399-533.

Springer, A. (1997). The Controversial End of an Odyssey. Die Welt, April 1. (Accessed 17 February 2018).

Tamanoi, M. A. (2006). Japanese War Orphans and the Challenges of Repatriation in Post-Colonial East Asia. Asian Pacific Journal, 4 (8), 1-17.

The Children of Sarajevo. (2018). Medium German Broadcasting. Feb 3. (Accessed 5 Feb 2018).

US Department of State. (1995). International Adoption: Former Yugoslavia. ERC. (Accessed 8 January 2018).

Wilkinson, T. (1997). Children who Fled Bosnian War Return. The Los Angeles Times. April 27. (Accessed 15 November 2017)

Wolff, P., H. Fesseha, A. Gebremeskel. (1999). The Orphans of Eritrea: A Five-year Follow-up Study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40(8), 1231-1237.

Zahra, T. (2009). "Lost Children: Displacement, Family, and Nation in Postwar Europe" Journal of Modern History, 81 (1), 45-86.




How to Cite

Ellis, B. A. (2019). Repatriation of War Orphans in Bosnia: Narratives of Nationhood and Care in Refugee Crises. Migration Letters, 16(2), 235–244.