Updated: Feb 3, 2021
Vučjak camp near the city of Bihać (Jelena Prtoric/TNH)
Hundreds of migrants have slept in the open or in abandoned buildings in freezing temperatures in Bosnia and Herzegovina this month. Bosnia has faced growing criticism from the European Union and others for failing to provide the migrants with basic humanitarian assistance as required by international law. But is this criticism fair? While Bosnian authorities play political games with the migrants on their territory, the European Union refuses to admit that militarization of its borders and violent pushbacks contribute significantly to this humanitarian crisis.
Last year, 17,000 migrants were recorded passing through Bosnia, down from 29,000 in 2019. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has brought the movement of migrants to a halt and more than 8,000 people remain stranded in Bosnia. As of 2018 when Bosnia became the main route for migrants seeking to reach Western Europe, the European Union has provided 89 million euros to the country’s authorities or partner organizations working to thin the influx of migrants at its external borders. Most of the migrants are from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. While 6,000 of them are in housing centers, nearly 2,000 remain in precarious conditions throughout the country. Their presence in or near urban areas brought on the revival of ethnic nationalist political games between Bosnia’s leaders and increased animosity towards migrants from local populations. In October 2020, regional authorities, who for years have complained about bearing the brunt of the European Union’s migration problems, evicted more than 400 migrants from the now-shuttered housing facility in Bihac, and they have kept it closed since. Most of them moved to the Lipa camp, which had been established in April as a temporary response to the Covid-19 pandemic to accommodate up to 1,600 people. The camp was never insulated or equipped with heating stoves. In December 2020, this camp was destroyed by a fire and dismantled. Many migrants stayed in the ruins of the former camp or moved to abandoned buildings nearby, living without heat, electricity, and running water.
In January 2021, the European Union allocated an additional €3.5 million to Bosnia and Herzegovina to provide aid for migrants currently left without shelter. However, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s complicated post-war political system makes coordinated action nearly impossible. Bosnia and Herzegovina is divided into two entities - the Serb Republic and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Serb and Croat-dominated parts of Bosnia refuse to accommodate any migrants, most of whom come from Muslim countries. Hosting the migrants has therefore fallen on the shoulders of the Bosniaks, who make up a majority of the population in the Una Sana region, where the Lipa migrant camp is located. The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is divided into 10 cantons. Each of these has the power of taking its own decisions on migrants, which impedes decision-making and coordinated aid or relocation of migrants.
The real issue behind this crisis is not lack of funds but the lack of political will on all sides, including the EU. Most of the migrants continue trying to enter Croatia and are met with violent police push backs that breach EU, human rights, and refugee law. EU officials claim too that many of the migrants stranded in Bosnia are not eligible for asylum. This also encourages anti-immigrant attitudes in Bosnia and Herzegovina as it strengthens the narrative that these are not “real refugees'' but rather economic migrants.
Without access to basic services, vulnerable refugees and migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina are exposed to serious protection and health risks, aggravated by the coronavirus. The much-needed lifesaving help does not replace longer-term solutions to the current situation. These solutions can only be created if the EU too takes the responsibility for its share of the burden and stops violent pushbacks at the Croatian border and instead builds systems that would allow migrants to apply for asylum and receive the assistance they so desperately need.