Hundreds of immigrants have slept in the open or in abandoned buildings in freezing temperatures this month as snow has covered the mountains of northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to humanitarian organizations.
Some of those staying in a ruined migrant camp have had to resort to washing in the snow due to lack of heated facilities or standing barefoot to receive food. Many suffer from scabies and high fever.
The mayor of the city of Bihac, 15 miles north of the camp, has refused to reopen a housing facility for migrants funded by the European Union that operated for almost two years until it closed in the fall. Now aid organizations and the military are struggling to provide humanitarian aid as temperatures have dropped to below 1
“It is an uninhabitable place. We are not even talking about meeting the basic humanitarian standards here, ”said Nicola Bay, national director of the Danish Refugee Council, which has provided migrants with winter clothing and medical assistance.
The extreme cold is just the latest misery in a saga that has unfolded for years and which took a dark turn last month when humanitarian organizations had to dismantle the Lipa camp after it was considered unsafe. When the migrants evacuated, a fire destroyed most of the tents there and forced them to seek refuge either in the cave in the destroyed camp or in abandoned buildings and icy wooded areas around it.
More than 1,700 people have slept outside under the harsh conditions, the EU said this month.
On New Year’s Eve, Bosnian authorities promised to move the stranded migrants to the nearby housing complex in Bihac “very quickly”. But two weeks to 2021, this facility has remained closed, and a Bosnian government minister has acknowledged that it is likely to remain so.
Bosnia has received growing criticism from the EU and others for not providing migrants with basic humanitarian assistance as required by international law.
“Hundreds of people, including children, are sleeping outside in freezing temperatures in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said Janez Lenarcic, EU Commissioner for Crisis Management, earlier this month. “This humanitarian catastrophe could be avoided if the authorities created sufficient overwintering shelter capacity in the country, including by making use of existing facilities available.”
Since Bosnia became a route for thousands of people hoping to reach Europe in 2018, the European Union has provided € 89 million or more than $ 108 million to the country’s authorities or organizations working there as part of a larger strategy. to thin the influx of migrants at its external borders. (Bosnia is not part of the EU, but it borders Croatia, which it is.)
Yet the coronavirus pandemic has brought migrants’ movement along the so-called Western Balkan road almost completely, and more than 8,000 migrants have been stranded in Bosnia, according to the International Organization for Migration, a UN agency. While 6,000 of them are in residential centers, nearly 2,000 remain in precarious conditions across the country.
Last year, 17,000 migrants passing through Bosnia were registered, down from 29,000 in 2019. But human rights organizations say the crisis has been worse this winter because of the authorities’ inability to address them.
Immigrants in northwestern Bosnia have had growing hostility from local populations.
In October, regional authorities, which for years have complained about the biggest strain on the European Union’s migration problems, expelled more than 400 migrants from the now closed housing complex in Bihac, and they have kept it closed since then. More than 80 minors were relocated to other housing centers, but more than 300 men were left without shelter.
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 was never isolated or equipped with stoves, and organizations say they told authorities it could only be a temporary solution.
Last month, it was dismantled and destroyed by the fire.
Across a gravel road from the former Lipa camp, Bosnian military forces have set up about 20 heated tents this week, half of which have holes that icy winds cut through, according to Mr. Bay from the Danish Refugee Council. Yet hundreds of migrants have been housed in tents administered by the Red Cross.
About 1,500 other migrants have stayed in the ruins of the former camp that burned last month or in abandoned buildings without electricity and running water nearby.
“On the one hand, the central government has tried to reopen the site in Bihac, which is intended to accommodate migrants, and on the other hand, local authorities and populations have refused to let them in,” said Peter Van der Auweraert, the Western Balkans. coordinator of the International Organization for Migration. “Migrants are trapped in the middle of this.”
Selmo Cikotic, Bosnia’s security minister, acknowledged that the situation was untenable and that immigrants were victims of Bosnia’s political disorder.
Both the central government and the local administrations, known as cantons, are responsible for the enforcement of human rights under the Bosnian constitution. But the regulation of the use of local land belongs to the regional authorities, who also control the police forces.
“From some elements of Bosnia’s political system, there is a lack of solidarity, a lack of respect for European and universal values, which we declared to be close to,” Mr Cikotic said in a telephone interview. “We have no working mechanism to address the opposition of the cantonal authorities,” he added, referring to the Una-Sana area, home to the Lipa camp and Bihac.
Sir. Cikotic, who met on Thursday with ambassadors from European countries and representatives of the European Union at the Lipa camp, ruled out using force to open the housing facility in Bihac.
It has angry humanitarian organizations.
“Every year we have this winter crisis and an emergency is being prepared at the last minute,” said Mr. Bay from 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 shall I go into a tent?’ he said of the migrants. “They have no idea what’s going on with them.”
On the Croatian side, police have tried to seal the route from Bosnia, and humanitarian organizations have reported countless abuses by police.
Aleksandar Panic, Bosnia’s Red Cross Disaster Coordinator, said some migrants had given up hope of reaching the EU through Croatia and instead returned to Serbia, on the eastern border of Bosnia, hoping to find their way to the European Union through Romania.
“Meanwhile, the camps in Sarajevo are full, and around the Lipa camp, the weather forecast is not in our favor,” Panic said. “We do not know if we can heat the tents enough.”