Hundreds of migrants slept outdoors or in abandoned buildings at low temperatures this month as snow covered mountains in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to humanitarian organizations.
Some of the residents of the destroyed migrant camp had to resort to washing in the snow due to lack of heated facilities or stacking barefoot to get food. Many of them suffer from scabies and fever.
The mayor of Bihac, 15 miles north of the camp, refused to reopen a European Union-funded migrant housing facility that operated for nearly two years until it closed in the autumn. Humanitarian organizations and the military are now struggling to provide humanitarian aid as temperatures have dropped below 1
“It’s a non-living place.” We are not even talking about meeting basic humanitarian standards here, “said Nicola Bay, state director of the Danish Refugee Council, which provides winter clothing and medical care to migrants.
The severe cold is just the latest misery in a saga that unfolds over the years and took a grim turn last month when aid groups had to dismantle the Lipa camp after it was deemed dangerous. As migrants evacuated, a fire destroyed most of the tents there, forcing them to take refuge either in the building of the destroyed camp or in abandoned buildings and icy wooded areas around it.
More than 1,700 people have slept outside in harsh conditions, the European Union said this month.
On New Year’s Eve, Bosnian authorities promised to move stranded migrants to a nearby apartment building in Bihac “very quickly”. But for two weeks in 2021, the facility remained closed, and a Bosnian government minister acknowledged it would likely remain so.
Bosnia is facing growing criticism from the European Union and others for failing to provide migrants with basic humanitarian assistance, as required by international law.
“Hundreds of people, including children, are sleeping outside in low temperatures in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Janez Lenarcic, the European Commissioner for Crisis Management, said earlier this month. “This humanitarian disaster can be avoided if the authorities create sufficient winter shelter capacity in the country, including through the use of available facilities.”
Since Bosnia became the path for thousands of people hoping to reach Europe in 2018, the European Union has provided 89m euros, or more than $ 108m, to the country’s bodies or organizations working there, as part of a larger strategy to reduce the influx of migrants at its external borders. (Bosnia is not part of the European Union, but it borders Croatia, which it is.)
Yet the coronavirus pandemic has brought the movement of migrants along the so-called route of the Western Balkans to an almost complete halt, and more than 8,000 migrants have been blocked in Bosnia, according to the International Organization for Migration, a UN agency. While 6,000 of them are in housing centers, nearly 2,000 remain in precarious conditions across the country.
Last year, 17,000 migrants were registered passing through Bosnia, up from 29,000 in 2019. But human rights groups say the crisis was worse this winter due to the authorities’ failure to accommodate them.
Migrants in northwestern Bosnia face growing hostility from the local population.
In October, regional authorities, who have been complaining for years about the burden of the European Union’s migration problems, evicted more than 400 migrants from the now-closed housing facility in Bihac and have kept it closed ever since. More than 80 minors were relocated to other housing centers, but more than 300 men were left homeless.
Most of them moved to the Lipa camp, which was set up in April as a temporary response to the Covid-19 pandemic to accommodate up to 1,600 people. The camp has never been insulated or equipped with heating stoves, and organizations say they have told authorities it could only be a temporary solution.
Then last month it was dismantled and destroyed by fire.
On a dirt road from the former Lipa camp, Bosnian forces set up about 20 heated tents this week, half of which have holes cut by the icy wind, according to Mr Bey of the Danish Refugee Council. Still, hundreds of migrants are housed in tents run by the Red Cross.
About 1,500 other migrants remain in the ruins of the former camp, which burned down last month, or in abandoned buildings without electricity and running water nearby.
“On the one hand, the central government tried to reopen the place in Bihac, which is intended for the accommodation of migrants, and on the other hand, local authorities and the population refused to let them in,” said Peter Van der Auveraert, Western Balkans International Coordinator. migration organization. “Migrants are caught in the middle of this.”
Selmo Cikotic, Bosnia’s security minister, acknowledged that the situation was unsustainable and that migrants were victims of political unrest in Bosnia.
Both the central government and local administrations, known as cantons, are responsible for enforcing human rights under the Bosnian constitution. But the regulation of local land use falls to the regional authorities, who also control the police force.
“Some elements of Bosnia’s political system lack solidarity, a lack of adherence to European and universal values, to which we have declared ourselves close,” Mr Cikotic said in a telephone interview. “We do not have a functioning mechanism to fix the resistance of the authorities in the canton,” he added of the Una-Sana area, home to the Lipa and Bihac camps.
Mr Tsikotic, who met with European ambassadors and European Union representatives at the Lipa camp on Thursday, rejected the use of force to open the Bihac housing facility.
This angered humanitarian organizations.
“Every year we have this winter crisis and an emergency response is created at the last minute,” said Mr Bey of the Danish Refugee Council. “But this year we are not doing it and you can see how fragile the situation is,” he added.
“They ask, ‘When can I go to a tent?’ He said of the migrants. “They have no idea what’s happening to them.”
On the Croatian side, police tried to seal the route from Bosnia, and humanitarian organizations reported countless abuses by law enforcement officials.
Alexander Panik, Bosnia’s Red Cross disaster preparedness co-ordinator, said some migrants had given up hope of reaching the European Union via Croatia and were instead returning to Serbia, on Bosnia’s eastern border, hoping to make their way to The European Union through Romania.
“Meanwhile, the camps in Sarajevo are full, and the weather forecast around the Lipa camp is not in our favor,” Mr Panik said. “We don’t know if we can heat the tents enough.”