Three months after the fire at Lipa camp, living conditions remain dire for people on the move in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) where around 2,500 people are sleeping in makeshift tents, squats, or in substandard military tents. With spring arriving, attempts to cross the borders are again on the raise but continue to be met by illegal and often violent pushbacks. Several tragic yet preventable accidents have claimed the lives of at least six people in the course of a few weeks.

Three months have passed since a fire destroyed the temporary Lipa camp located in BiH’s mountainous borderlands about 30 kilometres – or nearly 5 hours by walking – from the closest town Bihać. To this day, the new tented camp set up in response by Bosnian authorities continuous to lack access to running water and electricity. In an open letter addressed to MEPs, Soufyan Ali, a Pakistani national staying at the site wrote “There are only a dozen chemical toilets for over a thousand people. There is no running water for drinking. We often run out of water […] There are only five showers in total, for all these people. The hot water does not reach the showers.” The site remains shielded from journalists.

According to the grassroot organisation No Name Kitchen, that monitors border violence and distributes basic necessities to people on the move, about 1,000 people are housed in Lipa. However, the number constantly fluctuates as new people are admitted while others move on. Additionally, up to 1,500 people are currently staying outside of official camps in abandoned buildings or makeshift camps.

In several operations during the past weeks, police forces have been carrying out evictions in informal shelters. On 24 February, about 200 people who squatted in the run-down premises of a former paper factory in Bihać were evicted and bussed to Lipa, with some walking back to Bihać or dispersing into the forests as soon as the busses arrived. On 5 March, 35 families, including about 50 children, were evicted from abandoned houses in the village of Bosanska Bojna at the Croatian border and transferred to camps in Bihać, Sedra and Borići. Admission to the latter was however delayed as an outbreak of corona virus lead to the isolation of the camp on the same day and those transferred to the site were left to sleep outdoors in tents. Reportedly, 45 residents and 12 staff members at the Borići reception centre have recently tested positive for Covid-19, as well as five people at the Miral reception centre in Velika Kladuša. Outbreaks have also occurred at Lipa camp where tents are shared by 30 people.

With temperatures raising after a harsh winter, attempted border crossings by people stuck in limbo and aiming to reach safety are on the raise. Yet, illegal and often violent pushbacks across EU’s borders continue to be a routine procedure by police forces. The increasing use of high-tech border control devices such as drones and thermal-vision cameras has further contributed to fortifying EU’s south-eastern external borders. However, with no alternative people on the move continue to attempt crossings. In Velika Kladuša, families with small children are heading towards the Bosnian-Croatian border on a daily basis. About 150 people are hiding in abandoned buildings in the area, waiting for their chance to cross. One of them is Azeem Hasbib, a 16-year-old teenager from Afghanistan who longs to reunite with his family on the other side of the border. After experiencing 57 illegal pushbacks, he finally made it across the border on his 58th attempt, the German newspaper taz reports.

On the occasion of an upcoming field visit to BiH, OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, Valiant Richey, highlighted in regard to the current situation in the country that: “Whenever vulnerable people are left in dangerous conditions, the risks of trafficking increases. Identifying and protecting victims of trafficking is a legal obligation and a humanitarian duty.” In the past weeks, a number of tragic yet preventable accidents have once again shed light on the lethal consequences of Europe’s closed-door policies and the lack of safe and regular routes.

On 22 March, four people died in a fatal lorry accident on a highway in Western Slavonia, Croatia. According to Croatian police, 24 people, including at least two children, were in the trailer when the vehicle overturned. The 20 survivors were admitted to hospital, reportedly at least eleven of them were Syrian nationals.

In early March, a man was killed after stepping on a landmine near Saborsko, a Croatian municipality close to the border with BiH. Several others sustained injuries from the explosion, one of them so severely that his life was in danger. Following the incident, deminers inspected the site and cleared a corridor for the evacuation of ten people, reportedly Pakistani nationals, who remained trapped in the minefield. Four of the rescued had to be hospitalised. The remote borderlands between Croatia and BiH that are daily crossed by people attempting to reach the EU remain littered with unexploded ordnance dating back to the Balkan wars in the 1990s. According to official sources, Croatia still has about 17,000 unexploded mines and other explosive ordnances. For Bosnia and Herzegovina – one of the world’s most contaminated countries in this regard – estimates are even higher with about 79,000 unexploded devices still littering the country.

In February, the lifeless body of a Turkish man was recovered from the Glina river, that constitutes a natural border between Croatia and BiH. Together with a group of six others, he had attempted to cross the river but was separated from the group. It took a few days until the body of the drowned man was found.

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Photo: (CC) Bastian Walthierer, March 2016

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.