As temperatures continue to drop, thousands of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers stranded in Bosnia and Herzegovina face the bleak prospect of spending the bruising winter months without a shelter.
Over 2,000 people are currently outside of official “temporary accommodation centers.” They are forced to sleep rough in parks or seek refuge in abandoned houses and defunct factories. Some have set up encampments in inhospitable forests out of sight of police and the authorities.
For most people traveling along the so-called Balkans route, the long trips usually ground to a halt in Una-Sana Canton in the north-western corner of Bosnia. The canton borders with Croatia and is at the very doorstep of the European Union.
People who are often violently pushed back by Croatian police or forcefully returned to Bosnia end up in one of the temporary camps set up with financial assistance from the EU and managed by the UN’s migration agency, IOM.
While the camps offer shelter, basic nutrition, and rudimentary medical and other support, most are dangerously overcrowded and squalid, and offer no privacy or conditions for a dignified life. Close to 6,000 people are currently staying in these camps, most of which are in Una-Sana Canton.
Crackdown against migrants and asylum-seekers
Recently, the cantonal authorities, frustrated by the lack of support from other parts of the country and emboldened by the heightened rhetoric in the run-up to the local elections in early November, ramped up their crackdown on migrants.
They ordered the closure of Bira camp in Bihać, the largest such facility in the area. Local police forcefully evicted and bussed hundreds of residents to the outskirts of the canton, abandoning them to fend for themselves in near-freezing temperatures outdoors.
The closure of Bira has only increased the already alarming number of people sleeping rough. A reckless political decision has put at risk lives of people while the equipped camp with capacity to host close to 2,000 people now sits empty.
Local activists who gave food, clothes and medicines to those in need have been subjected to concerted smear campaigns and even death threats.
Earlier in the summer, the Cantonal government imposed a series of restrictive — some blatantly discriminatory — measures limiting people’s freedom of movement. Apart from prohibiting new arrivals into the canton, the government banned migrants and asylum-seekers from gathering in public places and using public transport or taxis and threatened to impose fines on anyone who provided private accommodation for them.
Local activists who gave food, clothes and medicines to those in need have been subjected to concerted smear campaigns and even death threats, but could not count on the protection of the authorities. For several weeks in September, police set up roadblocks, intercepted transport and removed suspected migrants from buses and trains, leaving many people, including families with children, stranded in the administrative no-man’s land.
As winter draws in, the images of flimsy tents on sleet-sodden wasteland, men cocooned in blankets huddling around the fire to warm up and a pervasive feeling of hopelessness conjure up a sense of imminent crisis.
Similar images in the last few winters provoked stark warnings by activists and human rights organizations that lasting solutions must be found to avoid putting lives at risk. Yet, it is December again and with thousands of people sleeping rough and facing increasingly hostile treatment, the situation in Bosnia threatens to grow into a humanitarian crisis that was predictable and entirely avoidable.
Despite significant financial and logistical support from the EU, Bosnian authorities have so far failed to act.
There has been no concerted effort to manage the crisis, provide adequate accommodation for the migrants and asylum-seekers and address their basic needs. What we have witnessed instead is a situation of almost systemic neglect.
Over the years, the Bosnian Ministry of Security, which is responsible for migration-related matters, has failed to provide the leadership and work with the authorities from other parts of the country to identify suitable accommodation facilities in the entire territory of Bosnia.
In Bosnia, it is unclear who is actually in charge of the existing camps.
Although under international and domestic law, Bosnia is obliged to provide basic support to people in its territory, the state authorities have acted as passive observers while IOM and other international organizations have stepped in to fill the gap and manage the humanitarian response.
As a result of legally dubious agreements and protocols between Bosnia’s Ministry of Security and international organizations, it is unclear who is actually in charge of the existing camps.
Instead of prioritizing support to the people desperately stranded in the country, the Ministry of Security recently hastily signed a readmission agreement with Pakistan and threatened to forcibly return Pakistani nationals who they see primarily as “economic migrants,” rather than potential refugees. While the agreement still needs to be ratified, the official rhetoric of automatically treating people who might need international protection as a group, rather than individuals is a troubling sign.
Deportations — without fully examining individual cases — are against international and domestic law and could result in persons being sent back to countries where their lives could be at risk.
Systemic gaps in Bosnia’s asylum system and persistent lack of resources in the Ministry of Security raise serious concerns about its capacity to properly assess such risk and subsequently implement returns. Over the years, less than five percent of thousands of people who expressed intention to apply for asylum in Bosnia were able to actually lodge their application and only a handful received any status in the country.
Officials in Bosnia have long insisted that the current situation with migrants and asylum-seekers is not one of their makings and that they should not be expected to fix it. Indeed, most people stranded in the country are there because of the violent pushbacks from Croatia.
As the youngest EU Member State and an aspiring member of the Schengen area, Croatia has been a keen guardian of the EU’s external border. Human rights groups have over the years documented systemic human rights violations by the Croatian police: collective expulsions, forcible deportations and serious violence and abuse of people caught on its territory.
The recent string of incidents in which people were subjected to torture, brutal beatings and a sexual assault have prompted an uncharacteristically strong reaction by the European Commission and a short notice visit by the Council of Europe’s Committee on Prevention of Torture.
Countries on the EU’s external borders have all employed violence and violated EU laws to stop transit through their countries.
Yet, it would be wrong to solely blame Croatia for such unlawful practices.
Indeed, the draconian measures at borders are just as much a consequence of the EU’s policy to reduce irregular entries and keep people off its territory by tightening border security, erecting fences, and outsourcing migration processes.
Countries on EU’s external borders, Croatia, Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria, have all employed violence and violated EU laws to stop transit through their countries. The failure of the EU to decisively stop such practices calls into question its true commitment to the fundamental rights and values and makes it potentially complicit in ongoing human rights violations.
The European Ombudsman’s recent decision to open an inquiry based on Amnesty International’s complaint to determine if the European Commission has done enough to ensure that EU-financed border operations in Croatia respect fundamental rights is an important step in establishing EU’s accountability. Over the years, unchecked policies and the measures of EU’s Member States aimed at fortifying the borders and closing doors to migration have only encouraged smuggling and the emergence of new and more dangerous routes. They have also led to the proliferation of squalid and hopeless camps and squats on the EU’s periphery.
The new EU Pact on Asylum and Migration announced in September was an opportunity to have a fresh start. Unfortunately, instead of presenting ambitious plans for sustainable safe and legal pathways for those fleeing persecution and poverty, the Pact has not offered real prospects for improvement.
Preventing humanitarian crisis in Bosnia
While the EU’s policies have undoubtedly contributed to the developing humanitarian crisis in Bosnia, this does not absolve the country’s authorities of responsibility to urgently provide shelter, support the people who are on its territory and strengthen its own asylum system.
In the context of the opening of EU accession negotiations, the European Commission must actively work with the country’s authorities to agree to systemic solutions, including urgently finding new suitable locations for accommodation. The EU should also continue to commit regular and predictable financial support to Bosnia to ensure that the needs of migrants and asylum-seekers are adequately met.
The authorities in Bosnia must reverse restrictive and discriminatory measures that target migrants and asylum-seekers and take steps to protect human rights defenders and activists who support them. Such measures are not only illegal but indirectly put at risk the lives of thousands of people who are already marginalized and undermine the rule of law.
Failure to act now could lead not only to a humanitarian crisis but could also further destabilize the already highly volatile country.
Feature image: Courtesy of Alba Domínguez Pena/No Name Kitchen.