For nearly three weeks, the fate of over 2,000 migrants living outdoors in freezing conditions in northern Bosnia has verged on escalating into a major humanitarian crisis, with numerous groups of threadbare asylum seekers seen shivering in the falling snow or huddling by campfires in temperatures below zero.
Some relief came over the weekend, with heating being added to recently set-up tents and a delivery of food, winter coats and sleeping bags on Sunday, according to a UN regional coordinator.
These developments seemed to have emerged not long after serious criticism of the region’s ‘dysfunctioning’ governance was voiced last Wednesday by EU Foreign Affairs Minister Josep Borrell.
Not a member of the EU, Bosnia and Herzegovina has increasingly become a country of transit for thousands of asylum seekers, hoping to make their way into Europe via Croatia or Slovenia, often coming from Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan.
A proportion of them have been unable to cross the borders, partly as a result of allegedly aggressive ‘pushbacks’ by Croatia, documented by organisations such as Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN). Over 8,000 are currently ‘bottle-necked’ in the non-EU region, staying at various refugee centres scattered around the country.
About 1,000 of the refugees currently living outdoors had been residents at a migrant camp near Lipa, not far from the town of Bihac. The camp was created in April in response to restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Lipa site was never connected to water or electricity supplies nor ‘winterised’ for ‘mostly political reasons,’ according to the UN’s International Office for Migration (IOM), who had also been seeking to get the government to equip the summer camp for the cold weather.
On 23 December, the camp was closed in protest by IOM after the local authorities continued to refuse to ‘winterise’ it. It was then set on fire by a handful of the migrants and asylum seekers who were also protesting. The fire left the camp uninhabitable.
There had been a plan to move people to another centre, but this was refused by that region’s local authorities. Negotiations between the authorities and IOM to allow those trapped there into the centre proved fruitless.
At the time, IOM stated: “[as a result] 1,400 people will join the growing number of migrants sleeping rough in Una Sana Canton, on Bosnia’s border with EU member Croatia. IOM estimates an additional 1,500 migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees —including women and children—also are stranded in squats and forest camps nearby. The lack of immediate solution raises the overall number of people in dire need of humanitarian aid to almost 3,000.”
The main obstacle to sheltering people in need would seem to be disputes between the country’s federal and local authorities, as funding from the EU has been forthcoming and adequate accommodation has been available.
A nearby centre in Bihac was refurbished through EU financial support but ‘stands empty due to the opposition of local authorities,’ according to Borrell.
Given the circumstances, it’s a wonder that deaths through hypothermia or pneumonia have not yet been reported, but would probably happen soon without adequate accommodation, provisions or medical facilities, given that snow now seems to be showering across much of the region.
Meanwhile, IOM Regional Coordinator Peter Van der Auweraert has documented the developments on his Twitter feed adding some more optimistic notes recently with pictures over the weekend showing flooring being added to the ‘heated’ tents and food packages being delivered by IOM teams.
[Header Image: Peter Van Auweraert, Twitter]