Thousands of refugees in difficult conditions in Bosnia and Herzegovina

More than 8,000 people have crossed the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina since the beginning of the year, the number is increasing each day. Only a few hundred of those who are registered are decent accommodations, others live on the streets, in provisional camps. Those happier among them found accommodation with the local population or in hostels and hotels.

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Flüchtlings"camp" in Kladuša

Thousands of refugees stuck in dire conditions in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Over 8000 people entered Bosnia and Herzegovina since the beginning of this year, and more are arriving every day. They are coming from the direction of Serbia or Montenegro, usually after having crossed to Greece via the sea or land border. For just several hundreds of those who are registered a decent accommodation is provided, but the rest are living on the streets, makeshift camps, while the lucky ones are hosted by the locals, or are living in hostels and hotels.

Most of the people on the move arriving to Bosnia this year are headed toward the European Union, and are hoping to cross the border with Croatia and continue their journey. However, Croatia, and lately even Slovenia, are pushing people back, often using violence. Yet, some made it to the EU, but many are stuck in Bosnia.

Citizens forced to take the role of the state

On Sunday, July 16th, a storm hit Velika Kladuša, an area in the north of Bosnia, near the border with Croatia. For about 400 refugees and migrants living in a swampy area near this town, it meant a real nightmare.

The Bare area in Kladuša was designated as a refugee camp by the municipality some months ago, and it was meant to be a space for people who have been arriving to the town since February this year. The local, as well as all other levels of the government in Bosnia (and there are three), are aware of this, as well as a number of international organizations, including the UNHCR and IOM. Yet, little has been done to create humane living conditions, but even that is based on the initiative coming from the locals and volunteers who have been present in Kladuša since April.

In Kladuša, where more than thousand are living at the moment, the biggest burden is on the citizens who are preparing food for the people, offering accommodation and showing hospitality in the best possible way. Nevertheless, the citizens are not able to do everything by themselves, and are not supposed to, but the answer from the institutions is very weak.

In the swampy area near the city center, portable toilets were brought in, but not enough and often only one is functional; electricity to partially light the outside area; drinking water was installed, as well as showers, but the way in which this was done and due to the location at the bottom of the “camp,” neither toilets nor showers are safe for all the residents of this camp, and among them are many minors traveling alone, and women.

Some tents were provided, but most of the shelters were made from plastic and slats by volunteers and people living in the camp, together. After a while, volunteers established showers, separate for men and women, in an abandoned building provided by the locals. It is safe and clean, and they also provide the possibility for washing clothes.

When it is hot, the area is full of mosquitos and different insects. There is hardly any shade, and it is almost impossible to breathe under the dark plastic covers. When it rains, it usually causes a small catastrophe. But on Sunday afternoon it caused a real disaster that showed how neglected this vulnerable group of people are while living in unbearable conditions.

The wind almost destroyed all of the “tents,” while the water soaked everything. The morning after, blankets, clothes, shoes, food, mattresses… everything was scattered, while people were walking through the mud up to their knees.

Security instead of solidarity

The same morning, in Bihać, the Office for Foreigners, part of the state Ministry of Security that is somehow exclusively in charge of issues related to refugees and migrants, evicted one of the squats where about 200 people were living. The eviction went in peace, and people were sent away from the old deserted building by the river, without being told where to go. So most of them ended up in the “camp” run by the local Red Cross in Đacki Dom, an area the local government designated for asylum seekers.

Đacki Dom is a building that is not safe to use at all. It does not have a roof, windows, doors and is practically just a construction with walls, stairs and holes in places where windows and doors should be. But, there is nothing. Almost 1000 people are there, and it is considered to be an official camp. The government, as well as all the international organizations present in Bosnia, are aware of this place, too.

Among the people who are forced to live there, are about 40 families, some with small children. There is no water in the building, except when it rains, when it falls all over the mattresses placed on the floors. Some people have small tents. The toilet and showers are outside, and are not safe at all for any women. A high presence of special police is visible, due to the paranoia spread through the media rather than real problems caused by the people who are staying here.

Some live in tents or makeshift shelters in the surrounding forest. All they are getting is one soupy meal a day provided by the Red Cross. Decent living conditions do not exist in this place.

Appeal for humanity

Besides Kladuša and Bihać, people on the move in Bosnia reside in Mostar, where the only decent official camp - Salakovac - was opened in May, but it hosts less than 150 people. Near Sarajevo, some 12 kilometers from the municipality of Trnovo, is the asylum centre Delijaš. People reluctantly accept to be in this place since it is far away, there is no transportation, internet or phone connection, while food is scarce.

Many who have been in the centre are complaining about the people working there, especially the management. Recently, the person responsible for the centre expelled two young refugees, one of them badly injured, without issuing any written decision or consultation with the Ministry. After they left the Center, the UNHCR did not provide help for them, even though they asked. The Ministry was informed, but no help came from that side, either. The only assistance came from volunteers, who took the injured men to the hospital that night, and he was under a doctor’s care for the next 10 days.

The third official accommodation place is a prison-type immigration centre, located in the municipality Lukavica. There have been numerous complains to volunteers from people who were kept inside concerning maltreatment, corruption and violence. Refugees who have been in the center informed volunteers that unaccompanied minors are also held there.  

The government and big organizations involved in dealing with migrants and refugees in Bosnia are cooperating with a limited number of local civil society organizations. One of them, Emmaus, that runs the centre in Doboj Jug, has been successfully providing help for different groups in need for years. However, they have no experience with refugees or migrants. Furthermore, the centre is of closed type and people who end up there cannot leave the premises, they have limited access to the WiFi network, and the employees are in possession of their documents. Being a closed type centre, information about the conditions or treatment inside are limited, or nonexistent.

Unaccompanied minors are also placed here, and have no freedom of movement. Due to this fact, many minors who arrive to Bosnia are avoiding registration, or are not telling the truth about their age. So, over 150 minors and unaccompanied children are registered.

IOM and the UNHCR, as well as a number of other organizations, are aware of the conditions in all these places, including Bihać and Kladuša, but remain silent when it comes to criticizing those responsible.

After the storm in Kladuša, a group of local activists and NGOs, issued an appeal to the authorities of BiH, the European Union, the UNHCR, IOM and other relevant organizations and institutions “to urgently secure adequate and humane accommodation for all migrants and refugees who live in the territory of BiH and to provide full logistical and economic support to local authorities and volunteers on the ground”.

Human rights on hold

Bosnia and Herzegovina has a Ministry for Refugees and Human Rights on the state level, but they are hardly involved at all in the entire situation. Their main excuse is that they are in charge only for people who have refugee status, while so far ignoring their responsibility in the area of human rights.

At the same time, the government is doing little to allow people who are in Bosnia to regulate their legal status. Officially, only slightly over 600 have applied for asylum, and none have been granted one until today. The truth is that the access to the system is so difficult that it almost impossible for many to start the procedure, and people easily decide not to do it at all. Additionally, they do not know what the rights they are entitled to if they obtain the status are, and are very suspicious after seeing the treatment they get from the government.

In May, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic, sent an open letter to the government in Sarajevo and the Minister of Security Dragan Mektić, reminding them that asylum claims of people who are arriving have to be “assessed fairly and effectively”.

“In addition, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s obligations under the human rights law are not limited to persons who have applied for such protection,” Mijatović writes, adding that “the minimum guarantees under the European Social Charter, for the right to housing and emergency shelter, apply to irregular migrants too. Shelter must be provided even when migrants have been requested to leave the country and even though they may not require long-term accommodation. The Committee has pointed out that the right to shelter is closely connected to the human dignity of every person, regardless of their residence status.”

She mentioned a number of obligations, but the letter got little to no attention in the Bosnian public. It hardly even reached the local media that, since the arrivals of asylum seekers, are back to the old models of hate speech, well developed over the years during and after the war, but this time directed toward a new group.

Listing the problems people currently on the move in Bosnia are facing could go on endlessly. Unfortunately, there are no local organizations which would be able at this moment to engage in advocacy for their rights. Civil society has been weakened by years of struggles with little victories. At the same time, religious communities are refusing to help in any way that could make a significant impact. The health system provides limited help to those in need, and more problems can only be expected. Nobody is talking about the involvement of children in the education system, and the school year is approaching; nobody is talking about long-term solutions for those who want to stay; nobody is talking about integration in any way…

Volunteers and the local population are engaged in assisting those in need, but the help they can provide is limited, and there is a tremendous need for those responsible to start doing their job, in accordance with international conventions and human rights standards.