As temperatures drop the suffering increases for hundreds of people on the move in makeshift camps or sleeping rough in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Human Rights Watch and MEPs demand immediate action by the European Council and Commission. Pushbacks continue across the region with authorities systematically burning and destroying clothes and possessions of people seeking to cross borders.          

The situation for people on the move stuck in BiH remains dire. Hundreds of people remain without shelter in the north of the country and squat in abandoned buildings or makeshift camps, young children are among them. At the site of the burned-down Lipa camp where about 750 people are housed in military tents, the lack of electricity and water supply persists. Some of the tents are reportedly in poor condition with water entering inside. Aid workers are increasingly concerned about the worsening living conditions as temperatures fell far below zero. According to a doctor who provided medical care – despite lacking a formal permission – in an abandoned ruin in the city of Bihać where about 100 people sleep rough, one out of three needed medical treatment. This concerned many cases of scabies, respiratory diseases, digestion issues, open wounds, and typical stress disorders like high blood pressure. Further, he sees people’s mental health at risk, stemming from their difficult living situation and the hostilities people encounter. He stated: “If you look at the living conditions as well as the diseases and illnesses of these people with a bit of common sense, I’m certain that people have died.”

Human Rights Watch urged authorities in BiH to immediately provide winterised accommodation and also called on the EU to provide long-term solutions. During a plenary session on 19 January entitled ‘Council and Commission statements – Humanitarian situation of refugees and migrants at the EU’s external borders’ numerous MEPs expressed their dismay with the current situation in BiH and urged action from the Council and Commission. European Commissioner for home affairs Ylva Johansson announced that she plans to visit BiH, including to the newly build emergency camp, in February. Drahoslav Štefánek, Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration and Refugees at the Council of Europe, will pay a visit to different reception facilities in BiH already next week.

The aversion among local authorities to solve the humanitarian crisis persists and is reflected in a recent statement by Nermin Kljajic, Interior Minister of the Una-Sana Canton in northwest BiH where most people are stuck. Pointing out the high number of pushbacks from EU member Croatia to BiH, he asked at a meeting of the Security Council why the country was not returning migrants to Serbia or Montenegro respectively.

The Balkan Region Report for December 2020 by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) reveals that the regional trend of abuse and violent pushbacks continues. BVMN has gathered testimonies of pushbacks, impacting a total of 707 people-on-the-move across the region. A particular concern is the systematic use of fire pits by Croatian police burning the cloths and possessions of people before violently pushing them back into BiH. According to BVMN: “The preparation of the fires alludes to the organised nature of the pushback process, and the division of roles between different groups of officers who carry out specialised tasks – including transportation, summary beatings, and the stripping and burning of clothing. The holes in the ground also suggest that the specific locations are being used repeatedly, eroding the soil into scorched pits – an enduring mark of the border violence being carried out”. However, the practice is not isolated to the Croatian border and 40% of the cases recorded by BVMN across the Balkan route involve the destruction of possessions, either via burning, or officers breaking items such as phones.

Official documents published by media reveal that Croatian police over a two year period has illegally pushed back 15,000 people to BiH. Bosnian Premier Zoran Tegeltija stated that the: “eastern borders are open on one side, including those of EU member countries, that in practice let migrants go through Bosnia undisturbed, and then simply close the borders between Bosnia and Croatia, creating many obstacles to stop migrants from continuing”. On 15 January a group of activists from the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia began a hunger strike, according to the network Diritti accoglienza solidarietà internazionale (DASI) promoting the initiative with people from several cities involved. The initiative aims to “stigmatize the practice of chain pushbacks, called ‘informal readmissions’, implemented by Italy, Slovenia and Croatia towards migrants” stating that they: “are illegitimate measures activated by border police, aimed at pushing back to Bosnia men, women and minors who would like humanitarian protection after attempting to cross the Balkans, sometimes for years”.

For further information:

  Photo: (CC) Bastian Walthierer, March 2016

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