EU offers additional funding to address humanitarian emergency for migrants in Bosnia

Migrants in Bosnia face a humanitarian emergency, with many stranded in freezing temperatures after a camp was destroyed. The EU has announced an additional €3.5 million of funding to Bosnia and Herzegovina to aid those who are vulnerable and provide shelter for migrants who are stranded.

Camp Lipa destroyed

Camp Lipa was located on the border between northwestern Bosnia and Croatia, as Bosnia is often passed through by migrants hoping to reach other European destinations. Like many make-shift migrant camps, it was criticised by human rights groups for its lack of resources and poor conditions. A fire broke out on 23 December 2020, injuring no one, but destroying most of the camp site. The fire was allegedly started by a group of migrants who were protesting the camp’s closure for renovation work. Now, reportedly over 1,000 migrants are without shelter and exposed to extreme winter conditions after evacuating the camp.

Previous attempts to move migrants to a nearby camp in Bira, and then to abandoned barracks in Bradina, were unsuccessful as both local authorities and residents opposed and migrants were seen as a “threat to security and public order”. Camp Bira was subsequently closed in October 2020. On 31 December after the fire, federal authorities decided to temporarily relocate migrants to another camp site in Bradina, but local authorities refused to open a new centre, leaving around 900 migrants from camp Lipa stuck on buses.

On 1 January 2021, the Bosnian army started to set up tents to provide temporary shelter for migrants affected by the camp Lipa fire whilst awaiting bus transfers, but these tents are on hard ground with no bedding. The EU announced additional funding towards sheltering migrants on 3 January and urged the Bosnian government to rebuild a new camp as many lives are at risk.

European Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell called the situation “completely unacceptable”. He tweeted: “We urge authorities to supply water and electricity at former #LipaCamp. Winter-proof accommodations are a prerequisite for humane living conditions.”

The announcement of more funding came after a meeting on 2 January between EU officials and Bosnia’s ministry of security. The EU already provides €85.5 million to Bosnia and Herzegovina to “meet its humanitarian responsibilities” and assist thousands of migrants and refugees. Borrell said that the EU’s aid would cover basic necessities but longer term solutions were “urgently needed”, especially to prevent people being left in the cold with no sanitary facilities in the midst of a global pandemic. Bosnia and Herzegovina has had 112,645 cases of COVID-19 and just over 4,000 deaths. Migrants are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 as many reside in cramped, unsanitary conditions and have little access to cleaning facilities and healthcare.

The European Commission also accused Bosnia and Herzegovina for using migrants as “internal political pawns”. European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano told reporters on 4 January 2021 that “people’s lives cannot be sacrificed for internal political power struggles,” and that Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to start acting like an “aspiring EU country” and provide immediate accommodation.

Out of the estimated 8,500 migrants in the country, around 6,000 are currently in EU-funded housing centres in Sarajevo and the Una Sana canton. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) chief coordinator for the region Van der Auweraert says the issue is not about lack of funding, but instead is lack of consensus of how to deal with migrants because of local and federal political disputes. He highlighted that “those made homeless could have a bed within 24 hours”, such as immediately placing people in former military barracks, as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ministry of security is legally-bound to provide migrants with accommodation.

Pro Asyl, a German NGO migrant aid organisation, accused the EU of having “completely failed” the migrants in Bosnia, calling for the opening of the nearby border to Croatia, an EU member state which many migrants seek to enter. Erik Marquardt, member of European Parliament for the German Green party, alleged push backs from the Croatiion authorities as a reason for why thousands of migrants remain stuck in northwestern Bosnia and remain in rough camps and abandoned buildings.

Poor treatment at the borders

Migrants across Europe are facing particular hardship and dangerous conditions over the last year as COVID-19 has created new challenges for their safety. More than 8,400 migrants and refugees crossed the English Channel seeking to enter Britain in 2020. This is four times the amount the previous year, with the figure of 1,951 in September alone more than the entire total for 2019. However, many migrants die on the journey, with boats capsizing and those on them tragically drowning at sea.

With the UK officially out of the EU as of 1 January 2021, it is yet to be confirmed the full effects that Brexit has on migrants and asylum seekers hoping to settle in the UK. New legislation will need to be drawn up to replace EU measures on the rights to immigration and asylum that the UK is no longer party to. Home Secretary Priti Patel has employed a harsh policy against migrants crossing the Channel, vowing to make crossings “unviable”, increasing militarisation of the borders with drones. One immediate impact – despite attempts in the House of Lords to secure similar powers in UK legislation – is the loss of the family reunion powers encompassed within the EU’s Dublin Regulation.

In December 2020, watchdog organisation Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) released the “Black Book of Pushbacks”, a 1,500 page documentation of illegal push backs against asylum seekers by authorities on Europe’s external borders. Compiled from 892 group testimonies and detailing the experiences of 12,654 victims of human rights violations along the Balkan migration route, the document describes alleged violence of border police officials.

“Between January and November 2020, the Danish Refugee Council recorded 15,672 pushbacks from Croatia to Bosnia-Herzegovina, with more than 60% of these reportedly violent”, the Guardian reports.

The book was made in collaboration with the United Left block of the European parliament, with more than 15 other organisations contributing, and was handed to the EU Commissioner for asylum Ylva Johansson. BVMN field coordinator Simon Campell spoke to the Guardian, saying that “The testimonies, committed here to paper, represent a definitive archive of evidence, detailing systematic violations against people on the move, such as breaches of international law on asylum and returns, as well as the prohibition of torture.”

Similarly in November last year, independent monitoring boards reported “inhumane treatment” of asylum seekers crossing the Channel at border facilities in Dover, such as health and safety abuses, wounds left unattended, and documentation mix-ups by authorities that lead to unaccompanied children being moved to different centres.

Migrants are in desperate need of safety and accommodation to prevent extra deaths in the winter period, especially with the threat of COVID-19. Border authorities should be held accountable for perpetrating poor treatment and violence against migrants in Bosnia, Croatia, the UK and other places in Europe where high populations of migrants are trying to reach safety. Governments and European Union officials must ensure their protection and afford them human rights to seek asylum, housing and safety.

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