Migrants at the Vucjak migrant camp in Bihac, Bosnia-Herzegovina | Photo: EPA/FEHIM DEMIR
Migrants at the Vucjak migrant camp in Bihac, Bosnia-Herzegovina | Photo: EPA/FEHIM DEMIR

As more and more refugees and migrants try to make it to Western Europe via the western Balkan route, and with winter approaching, the EU and NGOs have warned of a humanitarian crisis in the Vucjak migrant camp and similar facilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina near the border with Croatia. On Friday, hundreds of locals protested against the migrants' presence.

"If you ask me to sleep here for one night, I think that would be my worst nightmare."

That's what Indira Kulenovic of the Red Cross said in a recent BBC documentary about the Vucjak camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina near the border with Croatia. According to the BBC, five Red Cross volunteers come in every day to provide one daily meal. Other than that, people are on their own.

Recent rain has made the already inhumane conditions at the improvised Vucjak camp even worse. Garbage is everywhere, and some 800 migrants, many of them suffer from scabies, are somehow trying to stay warm.

"Here, it is not possible to live. You can see that,'' Yemshir, from Pakistan, told the Associated Press (AP), which also recently visited the notorious tent camp. "We need a good place, for life, sleeping, for eating, for drinking.''

On Friday, hundreds rallied amid tensions over the influx of people fleeing war and poverty. The protesters in the northwestern city of Bihac demanded the closure of overcrowded refugee camps and the relocation of the migrants from the city area. They carried banners reading "Free Bihac!" and chanted anti-migrant slogans.

Local authorities set up the Vucjak camp earlier this year on top of a former landfill site not far from a minefield, left over from the Balkan country's 1990s ethnic war. Known as "the jungle'' among migrants, the tent settlement has been deemed unfit to house people by leading international organizations, but local authorities have said they cannot close it down before a new location is found.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warned in a report published on Friday that "people may die without adequate shelter and other basic services" in Bosnia, where many migrants are sleeping in makeshift shelters and abandoned homes. "Four official centers for migrants exist, but services are inadequate and tensions are high, leading most people to stay elsewhere," the report added.

EU calls for camp closure

On Thursday, the European Union's top migration official joined the calls for the closure of the camp, which is close to Bosnia's northwestern town of Bihac.

Warning authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina of a humanitarian crisis, EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, during a speech in the European Parliament, said adequate accommodation must be provided for about 8,000 migrants in the country "to prevent a major humanitarian crisis in the coming winter."

Despite media reports claiming that authorities plan to shut Vucjak migrant center down as international organizations and the EU demanded, Kljajic said that, for now, migrants will be directed to Vucjak.

'Crisis of humanity' in Europe

The EU has given Bosnia over €36 million ($40 million) in aid since 2018, but conditions at Vucjak are so bad that "no EU financial support can, or will be, provided for it," Avramopoulos explained.

At the end of October, the European Commission (EC) provided an additional €2 million to prepare the camps in Bosnia for winter. The EU says that it has provided €36 million since 2018 to tackle the crisis in Bosnia.

Policital scientist Vedran Dzihic said the lack of progress was due to a "ping-pong" of responsibility between the EU and local Bosnian authorities. The situation in the western Balkan region was the result of an EU migration policy that externalized everything, Dzihic said. "Europe is what happens at the continent's weakest spot," the scientist said, calling the Vucjak migrant camp a symbol of the crisis of humanity in Europe.

The EC has said that it could not directly affect the situation in Bosnia. "We can only help, not make decisions for the responsible authorities," an EC spokesperson said on Tuesday. Time and again, the EU had called on Bosnian authorities to react, the spokesperson said.

Struggling to cope

An estimated 50,000 migrants have crossed Bosnia and Herzegovina since last year, bound for the EU. The impoverished country, which has become one of the most important transit countries on the so-called Balkan route, has been struggling to cope with the pressure.

Most migrants flock to the northwest section, which borders EU member Croatia. This has led to tensions in the border area, with local authorities demanding that other parts of the country share the migrant burden and take in some of the more than 6,000 people staying in the area.

Ethnically divided since the war, Bosnia has failed to come up with a unified, efficient response to the migrant crisis. While many Bosnians have expressed sympathy with the migrants because of their own war experience, many also have protested their presence and demanded that the migrants be moved or restricted to the refugee camps.

The Bosnian Serb part of the country, for instance, has refused to accept any migrants on its territory and has blocked efforts to deploy the army to stem the influx of migrants from Serbia. Many other Bosnian regions have also rejected hosting refugee centers.

Migrants reportedly banned from leaving camps

Further fueling tensions, authorities in northwestern Bosnia have been threatening to ban migrants from leaving or entering two other large local migrant camps, Bira and Miral, which are located in the town of Bihac in the Una-Sana canton on the border with Croatia.

The threatened curfew, reported the Bosnian news site Klix, is in a bid to push the central government to relocate people to other areas. According to Klix, the UN urged authorities not to restrict people's freedom of movement.

Klix quoted the interior minister of the canton, Nermin Kljajic, explaining that the decision was made because of the pressure placed on authorities by the large number of migrants in the area.

The people in the Mira and Bihal centers are formally registered as asylum seekers, though most of them do likely not intend to remain in Bosnia permanently. The camps are run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and together are estimated to host between 2,000 to 2,300 people. 

IOM official Peter Van der Auweraert warned that the curfew could lead to a worsening of the security situation and even prompt a pull-out of international organizations from the area.

Authorities had originally planned to close the Bira and Miral camps on November 15. But a new, planned facility near the town of Lipa, some 30 kilometers away from Bihac, is being protested by the mostly Serbian local population.

According to Klix, Dragan Mektic, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Minister of Security, asked the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to keep the Bira and Miral reception camps open until the new facility was ready.

"There is no plan B" if the two IOM-run camps are closed, Van der Auweraert said.

'Pushbacks' at the Bosnian-Croatian border

Many migrants staying in Bihac try to go over a nearby mountain to get into Croatia before moving on. They often spend weeks, or even months, in Bosnia trying to cross several times into Croatia -- an EU member state that is not part of the Schengen area (the EU’s borderless travel zone). Croatian police have been repeatedly accused of pushbacks and violence against migrants trying to cross the border from Bosnia. Police and the Croatian authorities deny these charges.

The practice of pushbacks is prohibited under the Geneva Refugee Convention, which entered into force in 1954. Article 33 provides the principle of nonrefoulement.

Migrant routes through the Balkans to Germany  Credit DWMore and more refugees and migrants arrived in Europe via the western Balkan route recently. In the first 10 months of 2019, EU border agency Frontex registered 8,400 border crossings -- an 82% increase compared to the same period last year.

With material from dpa, KNA, AP


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