How it came to pass that thousands of protection seekers in Bosnia have to freeze

In Lipa, hundreds of people are currently seeking shelter and are freezing. The Bosnian armed forces have put up at least a few winter tents in the past few days, but they are nowhere near enough for all the people. There should be take at least three monthsuntil the camp is ready. As it looks at the moment, the people will freeze until then. 

The EU Commission admonishes Bosnia-Herzegovina, but remains silent on the illegal pushbacks by the EU state of Croatia, because of which so many people are stuck in Bosnia in the first place. It is somewhat hypocritical for the EU Commission to draw Bosnia-Herzegovina's attention to European values, while the situation on the Greek islands is no better and people are stranded in Bosnia because of the EU's isolationist policy.

I have written an overview of the current situation in Bosnia here: 

When hundreds of thousands of people arrived via the Balkan route in 2015 and 2016, Bosnia and Herzegovina was little affected. Most of those seeking protection initially arrived in Hungary via northern Macedonia and Serbia. Only with the erection of fences and unlawful sealing-off practices in Southeastern Europe did Bosnia-Herzegovina become relevant as a transit country towards Western and Central Europe from 2017 onwards.

To date, Bosnia and Herzegovina has not managed to provide decent accommodation for the approximately 7000 refugees currently in the country. Almost all of them are in transit, hardly any of them want to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The main countries of origin of the people are Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina's regionally and ethnically divided political environment, conflicts arose between different parts of the country and cantons due to the accommodation of the people. The Serb-Bosnian dominated entity Republika Srpska covers 49 per cent of the country's territory and categorically rejects the accommodation of protection seekers. The other part of the country, the Federation, is divided into 10 cantons, in which mostly Bosniaks or Bosnian Croats are in the majority. The cantons also refuse to accept refugees. The conflict ultimately led to most of the refugees ending up in the city of Bihać and the surrounding area in the canton of Una-Sana.

Bosnian border canton refuses to accept refugees in completed camp

However, the canton of Una-Sana and the local authorities are not ready to accept more people. Bihać is home to the Bira camp, which could accommodate up to 1500 people until September 2020. However, the city had the camp closed and has since refused to provide more places. The opinion has prevailed among the population and the city administration that Bihać has done enough after more than three years and that it is now the turn of other cities, cantons and parts of the country. Here, right-wing groups repeatedly attack volunteers and the police regularly use extreme brutality against refugees.

Other camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina are Borići (capacity 580) and Sedra (430) at Bihać and Ušivak (800) near Sarajevo, where families and unaccompanied minors are accommodated. In Blažuj (2400) near Sarajevo and Miral (700) near Bihac, mainly single men are accommodated. The situation in the camps run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is often poor. There can be no talk of meaningful measures against the spread of Corona. However, at least certain basic standards are met.

Last winter, there was already an escalating dispute between the city of Bihać and the central administration in Sarajevo. At that time, hundreds of people were dumped at the former Vučjak landfill site near Bihać and threatened to freeze to death there in winter. At that time, it was still possible to avert that the people have to spend the winter in these absolutely undignified conditions. On 10 December 2019, most of them were brought to a former barracks near Sarajevo.

Unacceptable situation in Lipa

This winter, that was no longer possible. The current disaster in Lipa was foreseeable. Lipa is a village 25 kilometres south of Bihać, uninhabited since the Bosnian war and accessible only by dirt roads. There is no electricity, running water or heating, although the village is at around 750 metres and can get very cold in winter.

The Lipa camp was set up on a makeshift basis on 21 April and was intended as an emergency solution to accommodate up to 1000 people during the corona pandemic. It was not supposed to continue operating after the autumn. The Bosnian Council of Ministers decided on 21 December that people would first be moved back from Lipa to Bira in Bihac until a camp for up to 1500 people could be set up in Lipa. The IOM decided on 23 Dec to close Lipa because it was not winterized. However, Una-Sana Canton refused to accommodate people in the towns and Bira remains empty.

Then, on Dec. 23, a large part of the Lipa camp burned down and most people had to sleep crammed into a large summer tent and build an open fire to avoid freezing to death. Various media outlets reported that residents had set the fire themselves. However, local police say that while they are investigating in that direction, they have no circumstantial evidence of that yet. Currently it is not known who started the fire.

Right-wing protests against admission

On 29 December, about 700 people were picked up from Lipa by buses to take them to a barracks in Bradina, halfway between Sarajevo and Mostar. There, however, there were protests by the population, which is why the twenty buses went back and brought the people seeking protection back to Lipa.

The Council of Ministers decided on 31 December that Bihac and the Canton of Una-Sana should reopen the Bira camp, which in turn led to protests by hundreds of people in Bihac who blocked the road to the camp and some of whom threatened to set fire to the camp if refugees were brought there again.

So the shelter seekers were brought back to Lipa. In the freezing cold they slept in self-made plastic huts and thin tents on the bare floor. The head of Bosnia and Herzegovina's immigration office now says it will take four months to turn Lipa into a permanent camp with electricity and water. In the meantime, the Bosnian armed forces have erected a few heated army tents with money from the Bosnian budget, but not everyone can fit in them at the same time.

Double standards of the EU Commission

The EU Commission is demanding that Bosnia treat refugees with dignity. That's true, but it's hard to beat the double standards: Those fleeing the life-threatening conditions in Bosnia are mistreated and turned away by EU member Croatia. Frontex is watching along with officials from other Member States. Despite this – or precisely because of it – the EU Commission has initiated Croatia's Schengen accession and has so far avoided both infringement proceedings and public criticism.

The EU Commission refuses to acknowledge the reality and, even in response to repeated requests, has refused to admit that European law and fundamental human rights are being systematically broken at the Croatian external EU border. The Commission thus prefers to deny the truth and tolerate the daily violation of the law than to guarantee people access to asylum procedures in the EU based on the rule of law.

In addition, the EU has provided Croatia with money to establish a monitoring mechanism at the border, but this money has not been earmarked. Commission staff even tried to conceal this from Parliament, as research by the Guardian suggests. The systematic violation of the law does not stop the German government from continuing to give away material to the Croatian border police.

In recent years, the EU has transferred a total of more than 85 million euros to Sarajevo to care for refugees. Most of the money went to the IOM. Following the fire in Lipa, a further EUR 3.5 million is to be made available.

Even this money will not solve the problem in the long term. It is a political problem. Bosnia and Herzegovina doesn't want to house people in a humane way. Croatia is pursuing a brutal and illegal policy of sealing itself off, which leads to the mistreatment of refugees and because of which they are stuck in Bosnia in the first place. The EU Commission, in turn, refuses to even acknowledge this reality. This is all also a policy of deterrence. That is why people are currently stuck and freezing in Bosnia. 

The situation of those seeking protection in Bosnia thus also arises from the actions of the EU, at whose borders pushbacks are carried out and which at least tolerates this situation. Thus, the EU bears a share of responsibility for the deplorable conditions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.