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One step far from Europe: what is happening with migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Silvia Ruggeri is a guest writer at the Warwick Economics Summit Blog. She is a student of Philosophy, International and Economic Studies at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice

Lipa, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH): 30 kilometers far from Bihać, the administrative center of the Una-Sana canton, the tents of the homonymous migrant camp are burning. Since the 23rd of December 2020, 1500 people are left there with no place to stay.

Since 2018, BiH has been a crucial point along the Balkan Route. The Route has become the primary migration path that people from the Middle East, mainly Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Siria, take to reach the European Union. It existed until 2016 as a humanitarian corridor but, since its official closure after a series of international treaties intended to block the incoming flow, it de facto remained active as an illegal track in the hands of traffickers. The border between BiH and Croatia represents the last physical boundary to cross to reach the European Union: this is why migrants cluster particularly in the northern area of the country, with Bihać and Velika Kladusa being the main reception hotspots. The country is acting as a bottleneck: in 2020 only, 16 thousand people are estimated to have passed through Bosnia and Herzegovina. Of them, 10 thousand are still blocked in the country, because of the usual rejection policies of the neighbouring countries, harshened by the pandemic.

The Lipa camp opened in April 2020 as an emergency structure, in response to overcrowding and unsuitable conditions elsewhere. It was run by local authorities, side by side with IOM, the International Organisation for Migration. For several reasons, mostly political, it had never been furnished with water or electricity supply, nor made suitable for the rigid temperatures of the Bosnian winter. With cold days approaching, IOM decided to close it: the clearing happened on the 23rd of December 2020, with no actual plan on where to take more than 1000 migrants living in the area because of a stalemate between the Bosnian government and the European Union. Minutes after the closure, the camp caught fire, worsening the situation: with the camps of Sarajevo and Velika Kladusa with zero additional capacity, people had to sleep rough, joining 1500 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees stranded in squats and forest camps in the area of Bihać. The main responses to the emergency are coming from the local Red Cross, which is distributing warm clothes, sleeping bags, food and hygiene kits to avoid leaving migrants completely alone in facing the rigid winter conditions that already reap victims among them. The Bira camp could be used, at least temporarily, to host people, but the municipality of Bihać refuses to open it, following reluctance of local inhabitants towards refugees.

This is the last chapter of a series of mismanagements which are bringing BiH on the edge of a humanitarian crisis: the hundreds of people striving to enter the country continue being seen as an emergency, for which there is no effective, long-term response prepared. Conditions in camps are critical, human rights are systematically violated, and any attempt to cross the border implies facing the brutality of the Croatian border police, which regularly uses physical violence on migrants while pushing them back to BiH. It may take ages to leave the country and, even once arrived in the European Union, it is not unlikely to be repulsed all the way back. Similar rejections violate European law and are prohibited by the European Convention for Human rights, that establishes that police should accept asylum requests presented at the border.

Many organisations are now calling for immediate actions to care for the necessities of migrants and to shield them from facing inhuman conditions, given the inability of institutions to implement long-term strategies that would tackle the emergency and grant respect for human rights. Amnesty International underlines how infrastructures and funds to host the vast majority of migrants would be present, but, until political willingness is not found, the situation is destined to only worsen. The call, is, therefore, on a widespread assumption of responsibility on the part of the European Union, as well as of IOM and the government of BiH, to stop turning the back to people that are calling for temporary reception and to the evident consequences of politics for the reinforcement of borders. Only this would create more authentic opportunities, through legal and safe pathways, for those seeking salvation in Europe from conflict, persecution and poverty, and avoid the outbreak, which seems closer than ever, of a full-force humanitarian crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Image copyright: Valerio Muscella, Michele Lapini


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