EU money won’t solve Bosnian migration mismanagement, rights groups say

Migrants Protest against poor living conditions at Camp Lipa in Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 01 January 2021. Some thousand refugees at the camp were scheduled to be relocated from the burnt-down tent camp on 31 December, yet were returned to Lipa camp. A fire on 23 December destroyed most of the camp near the city of Bihac, which has already been sharply criticized by international authorities and aid groups as unsuitable for accommodating refugees and migrants. [EPA-EFE/FEHIM DEMIR]

Emergency funding won’t suffice to avoid a repetition of humanitarian crises during winter months in Bosnia, which is the result of local migration mismanagement and EU border-tightening measures, human rights group said on Tuesday (12 January).

There would be ‘”no more Morias,” European Commission home affairs chief, Ylva Johanson, said in September 2019, referring to the fire that left thousands without shelter on the Greek island of Lesbos and pushed migration back to the top of the European agenda.

Yet, about a thousand refugees have had to bear sub-zero temperatures for three weeks from a burned-down camp in Bosnia since the end of December.

“Unless the European Commission commits, and really sticks this time around to ensuring that Bosnian authorities meet their international obligations and the needs of people who are on their territory, we are going to have more Morias,” Jelena Sesar, a researcher at Amnesty International, told EURACTIV.

Bosnia risks “severe consequences” to its reputation if assistance is not urgently provided to the more than 1,700 refugees and migrants who remain without shelter and support in the Una Sana canton of northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) bordering Croatia, EU top diplomat Josep Borrell said on Monday (11 December).

'Consequences' for Bosnia over freezing migrants: EU official

Bosnia risks “severe consequences” to its reputation if assistance is not urgently given to 1,700 migrants left without shelter for more than three weeks, the EU’s foreign policy chief warned Monday (11 January).

Sesar said the criticism of the European Commission of Bosnia is disingenuous as the entire problem is caused by the tightened EU borders and heavy handed policing, which created а bottleneck at the bloc’s frontiers.

Tens of thousands of refugees became stranded over the past years as they tried reaching Western Europe through Bosnia, an EU candidate country with a 3.3 million population bordering EU-member Croatia.

Leading human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Médecins du Monde, said “the permanent crisis management mode, first and foremost by the European Commission, without demanding concrete progress on accession criteria, disincentivises greater national ownership by the authorities in BiH.”

On 3 January, the Commission announced an additional €3.5 million to help find shelter, bringing the total of aid to €13.8 million since 2018.

“Quick fixes, emergency funding and last-minute political agreements had helped alleviate past crises, but alone they cannot and will not address systemic deficiencies,” international  human rights watchdogs have said.

The NGOs called on the EU to “set clear expectations in terms of commitment of BiH authorities to put in place robust institutions and demonstrate readiness to adequately address the needs of people on its territory.”

Déjà vu

Without systemic and durable solutions, humanitarian crises have become a recurring and unavoidable occurrence every winter, according to international observers.

Despite ample funds, critics say Bosnian authorities have not shown neither necessary commitment nor the competence to deal with the problem over the last three years and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) had to step in to fill in the gaps and manage camps.

A year ago, Bosnian authorities have come under fire over the Vucjak camp, built on a former landfill near the Croatian border in an area with landmines from the 1990s war, where migrants lived without heating, running water or toilets.

In December 2019, authorities dismantled the Vucjak camp and transferred hundreds of people who were living at the site to another site near Sarajevo.

Months later, amidst the worsening pandemic situation last spring, local authorities of the Una-Sana canton ordered the mandatory relocation of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers into a temporary camp near the village of Lipa, some 25 kilometers from the Croatian border.

Meanwhile, one of the EU-funded IOM-run camps, Bira, was shut down in October. Local authorities said they were forced to shut the camp because of a lack of support from higher levels of national government, which caused a health and security risk due to its proximity to the city of Bihać, the administrative center of the canton.

However, no other suitable accommodation was found for the migrants, increasing the number of people sleeping rough in the region as the winter approached, while the temporary Lipa camp was already overcrowded.

As with the Vucjak camp, international observers hoped that authorities would follow the normal annual script of resolving migration-related humanitarian crises in winter by finding alternative accommodation at the eleventh hour.

However, the Bosnian executive branch, divided along ethnic lines, and the security ministry failed to reach a political agreement with local authorities elsewhere for the about 1,200 people stranded at the Lipa camp that was being shut down.

This resulted in 900 people stranded on buses for two days before being returned back on 30 December to the then already burnt-down Lipa camp, where they have remained for the past three weeks.

Though heated tents have now reportedly been put in place for the migrants who so far had to bear sub-zero temperatures in flimsy tents and no water or electricity, others remain sleeping rough in a nearby forest, waiting for a solution.

Moreover, the authorities of Una Sana canton have already earlier threatened to close the Miral camp, another IOM-run center further up north. Though that has not yet happened, rights group fear that the situation may deteriorate further.

Since 2018, the EU has poured €88 million into BiH, most of which has gone to help strengthen migration management capacity.

According to Sesar, “these funds really should have been sufficient to at least ensure some level of proficiency on the part of Bosnian authorities” and secure a commitment to resolve migration issues.

“Because regardless of who caused the crisis, Bosnian authorities have an obligation to provide minimal guarantees to people who are on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Sesar said.

Migrants in limbo in Bosnia after camp fire

A thousand migrants from a burned-out camp were in limbo in Bosnia on Thursday (31 December), struggling with freezing temperatures and snow as efforts by local authorities to re-house them sparked protests from locals.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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