Heavy snowfalls and freezing temperatures in Bosnia and Herzegovina pose a serious threat to around 3,000 people who are forced to sleep rough in the northwest of the country and 1,600 people staying in a substandard tented camp. Further, people on the move continue to be exposed to hostility and violence.

Last week, the first heavy snow fell in Una-Sana Canton, the northern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina bordering with Croatia where several thousand people on the move remain without shelter. Already in mid-November, ECRE member the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) had warned that winter would further worsen the situation of about 3,100 people who at that time were sleeping rough in Una-Sana-Canton, and additionally 400 people in Tuzla Canton and in Sarajevo Canton. The NGO estimated that at least 200 of them were unaccompanied minors and reportedly witnessed families with six-month-old children sleeping rough. Eight out of ten people the NGO assessed had survived days without a meal and had health concerns, nine out of ten were lacking access to financial means. According to information The New Humanitarian received from the regional IOM office, there are still about 3,000 people sleeping rough in abandoned buildings, tents, and makeshift camps as winter hits.

To stay warm, people make little fires outdoors or in the abandoned buildings they sleep in, with all the dangers this involves. The need for warm clothes, shoes, and sleeping bags remains high, with the burning of possessions by border guards adding to the problem. In October, DRC reported “an all-time monthly high” in recorded pushbacks from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina with 1,934 individual cases. This was accompanied by the highest rate of reports of physical abuse, with 64% of persons reporting to have experienced violence at the border. On 10 December, the Centre for Peace Studies (CMS), an ECRE member based in Zagreb, filed two criminal complaints to the public prosecutors against unknown police perpetrators over reasonable doubt that they detained 13 people, including children, and handed them over to armed men dressed in black uniforms and balaclavas. In both cases the men in black uniforms tortured and humiliated the people they received, which included brutal beating and rape as also reported on by the Guardian. Subsequently, the survivors were pushed back to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The recent snowfall has further increased the likelihood of being detected and abused by border guards, as one becomes easily trackable by the footprints left in the snow.

As the situation has become increasingly unbearable and prospects to successfully move on are low, many have tried to access camps which are already overcrowded and are poorly equipped. Accommodation capacity became particularly strained with the closure of the IOM-run Bira camp in Una-Sana Canton, reflecting growing hostilities towards migrants in the region. In the electoral campaign ahead of local elections in November, politicians have spread hate speech towards people on the move and repeatedly threatened to also close Miral camp, currently housing 1,000 people. A third camp in Una-Sana Canton, called Lipa camp, that opened as an emergency facility in April and currently houses 1,600 people in tents is overcrowded and not winterproof. It lacks electricity, running water, functional sanitary facilities and with overall inadequate living conditions it posed a high risk for residents and public health. Last week, Abdullah Khan, a resident at Lipa camp, initiated a petition calling for the immediate closure of Lipa camp “before someone will die,” stating “the camp is in the mountains, the temperature is always below zero now. The water is frozen and there is a problem with the light”. On 9 December, EU’s delegation in Bosnia and Herzegovina warned in a statement that “the humanitarian crisis is becoming a reality because of the lack of action of the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina”. It further urged authorities to relocate the residents at Lipa camp to the “unlawfully emptied” and EU-funded Bira camp in Bihać, and “to ensure shelter for all persons in need in the coming winter”.

Given the dire accommodation situation, many people have reportedly returned to Sarajevo or Tuzla where accommodation can be found more easily. A volunteer with the humanitarian organisation Emmaus in Tuzla said: “We have roughly 20 returnees from Una-Sana every day” and that “People are returning to Serbia as well because there are at least camps there.” A volunteer with the grass-root organisation No Name Kitchen providing support to people sleeping rough in the so-called “Bangladeshi Jungle”, an improvised makeshift camp in the forest around Velika Kladuša, said: “they are all trying to leave now because they cannot handle this cold weather”.

On 7 December, Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, wrote a letter to the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zoran Tegeltija, and to the Minister for Security, Selmo Cikotić, urging authorities to address the persistent shortcomings in their handling of migrants and asylum seekers, including seriously substandard living conditions despite available funding to expand reception capacity. Further, she called on authorities to counter vigilantism and refrain from stigmatising speech about people on the move, and to investigate threats and attacks towards human rights defenders. She also urged to ensure access to asylum procedures and to meet the special protection needs of unaccompanied children.

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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.