Migrants Stranded In Freezing Temperatures In Bosnia Indicate A Possible Humanitarian Crisis

Migrants in northwest Bosnia and Herzegovina have spent the last few weeks freezing, after the Lipa camp was burned down on December 23. 1,000 people are living outside or in abandoned buildings, with only fires to keep them warm and food provided by aid organizations, according to Al Jazeera. They are subject to heavy winds and snow from the nearby mountains. The situation they have found themselves in is due to hostilities of Bosnian political officials and citizens towards migrants. There were plans for them to be relocated to a camp in Bihac, close to the Lipa camp, but they were blocked by Bihac’s mayor, Suhret Fazlic. Bosnia has become a transit country for migrants trying to reach Western Europe, as other transit countries like Turkey, Greece, and Hungary have become increasingly challenging options, says the New York Times.

Political officials within different levels of the Bosnian government have been unable to agree on a common solution to provide aid to the migrants, which is due to the country’s decentralized power structure. Local officials have the freedom to disregard the decisions of the federal government. The Bosnian Ministry of Interior issued a statement saying: “Obstructing and rejecting the proposed solutions for the accommodation of migrants who are now in the open, can only worsen the humanitarian situation, cause additional suffering and even human casualties.” Euronews quoted Husein Kavazović, the Bosnian Grand Mufti, stating, “The inhuman and humiliating treatment of these people is a shame for Bosnia, but also for Europe.” Mayor Fazlic directly told the New York Times three years ago that he did not want migrants in the country and that they did not want to be there either. He followed up recently saying, “For three years now, we have been carrying the burden of the migrant crisis and providing accommodation for the migrants,” before stating he would not accept their relocation. His animosity was coupled with protests from Bihac residents against the migrants’ presence.

The bureaucracy between federal and local government in Bosnia has created a lot of stalling and indifference that the migrants ultimately suffer most from. The fire was believed to have been started by migrants who were angry at the expected closure of the Lipa camp, which was without any truly viable relocation plans. After the fire, they were put on buses that were intended to take them to former army barracks 300 miles south in the town of Bradina. After residents of Bradina also protested, the buses did not leave Lipa and held the migrants for 24 hours before they returned to the burned-out camp.

The federal and local governments should be collaborating more to come up with genuine solutions to the problem that will appease both parties. The federal government can propose relocation sites around the country and speak with local officials and residents there before doing anything to move the stranded migrants. They can also assess if neighboring countries are open to hosting relocation sites. Even the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been able to do little to help the migrants, besides overseeing aid groups. Peter Van der Auweraert, Chief of Mission in Bosnia for IOM, made an important point to the New York Times: “If you don’t open the camp in Bihac, you keep people in abandoned buildings, uncontrolled. I don’t see how that is better for the security of locals there, rather than having a centralized camp that provides the most basic services to those who need them.” This point should be made salient across the country by local journalists. It is better to have the migrants in one place rather than scattered randomly around the country. This would help aid organizations continue to provide food, clothes, blankets, and temporary shelter for the migrants with more ease.

The New York Times recorded 750 migrants going through Bosnia in 2017, as opposed to 29,000 in 2019. There were less in 2020 — only 17,000 — but increasing hostility towards them has made their experience in Bosnia more difficult. Bosnia is already plagued with ethnic hostilities, being ethnically divided itself after the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia. As migrants from Asia and Africa cross into Croatia from Bosnia, they have been subject to human rights violations like beatings and sexual assault that have affected women and children, according to Al Jazeera.

The Bosnian military helped with a temporary solution on January 1st under the guidance of the IOM by constructing tents for the migrants. Earlier, they protested their living conditions by refusing food and calling for international help. If Bosnian officials cannot decide on a solution amongst themselves, the situation calls for more attention from aid organizations and the international community as a whole to prevent what could become a bigger humanitarian crisis.

Dayna Li