By Selma Mesic, RRE Greece and Balkans Coordinator
The already desperate situation for displaced people on the Bosnian side of the Croatian-Bosnian border has drastically worsened in the last few weeks. Intensified by brutal pushbacks from Croatian authorities, the northwest region of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) – in particular Una-Sana Canton (USC) – has become a bottleneck with increasingly acute humanitarian conditions.
The reception centres have consistently been at capacity and in poor conditions, and 2-3,500 people have been living in squats, tents and other improvised shelters throughout 2020. The situation became exponentially worse with the closing of Bira camp in September and the Lipa camp in December, leaving yet another 1,500 people in destitution in the middle of a severe winter.
Despite pressure from the EU, NGOs and other actors, no sustainable long-term solution has been established with the government. Though Lipa rightfully has garnered attention from media and EU officials in the last few weeks, this event was effectively a straw that broke the back of a humanitarian crisis that has been mismanaged for years.
The Ongoing Mismanagement of Protection and Shelter
In September 2020 RRE submitted evidence acquired through desk research and interviews with field-based organisations to UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It showed that people had routinely been barred entry to certain temporary reception centres (TRCs), that overcrowding and the lack of basic services outside TRCs were rampant and noted routine violence and forced transfers. The lack of shelter was a serious issue across the country.
In Sarajevo, a respondent organisation estimated that around 600-800 people lived outside of TRC facilities during the spring and summer, a low estimate due to the organisation’s limited geographical reach. In Tuzla, a study by CARE international showed that “over three-quarters of refugees and migrants do not have sufficient access to clean drinking water. There is also no adequate access to sanitation and basic hygiene” and no organised shelter provisions by the government to address these issues in the city.
Our findings in USC were however especially damning. The report described multiple worrying developments, from special police driving around town beating up people on the move, to putting them in buses and dropping them in Otoka, an out-of-reach remote area. Key services that sustain many displaced people, e.g., shops and money transfer services, had barred their entry. The Bosnian police reportedly had been forcefully re-accommodating people from Bira to Lipa despite overcrowding in the middle of a pandemic.
The removals were publicly condemned by international organisations. Moreover, a couple of thousand people lived outside the TRCs in squats, forests etc., without hygiene facilities, shelter or non-food items. A respondent frequently came across people that had not eaten for days. DRC estimated there were 250 improvised camps in the canton in early December, one of the settlements in a forest outside of Lipa ‘housing’ 300-600 people.
The additional tensions with local populations and clashes with vigilante groups in the fall, the Covid-19 situation and the closure of the TRC Bira, prompted warnings from aid organisations of a situation “that is fast taking on crisis proportions”. The Bira closure left an additional 400 people without shelter and basic support, while some were re-accommodated to an already packed Lipa.  This garnered criticism from UN officials for putting in a state of ‘needless suffering’.
Lipa was initially built in April 2020 to accommodate 1,000 single men sleeping rough in USC. It was however at capacity since it opened and the rate of people sleeping outside of TRCs remained high. It was criticised by key actors since its inceptions for not meeting reception standards in the Law on Asylum of humane and dignified accommodation, due to the isolated location, lack of hygienic management, hot shower water and sewage. The facilities in the camp were not even made of the commonly used containers but large plastic tents.
The Closure of Lipa and its Aftermath
Lipa was finally closed on 23 December after repeated failures by officials to install water and electricity. As the camp was being closed and evacuated, what remained of it was set on fire. 500 people joined the surrounding squats, forests and shipping containers. The rest were to be driven to another location, but the plan was terminated due to protests by locals in the target area. They returned to the burned down camp, unable to use the freezing showers and toilets.
NGOs warned that “frostbite, hypothermia and other severe health problems are already being reported by those stranded on location”, urging for an alternative solution.The closure has roused EU officials to strongly condemned the situation. After a flurry of negotiations, the government agreed that work would be done to make Lipa into a permanent accommodation centre by April, though this seems unlikely in the current political climate.
In the meantime, a re-opening of Bira camp was supported by Bosnia’s Security Minister, the EU and the US Embassy, as well as the Council of Ministers on the 31 December. This plan continues to face major resistance by the locals and the mayor of Bihac due to ‘security concerns’, while the Prime Minister of USC simply passed the responsibility onto the state level.
The political ping pong between different levels of the governance in BiH, marred both by a lack of political will and a dysfunctional governance structure, has been a key roadblock in the rollout of an efficient reception system. The Commissioner for Human Rights warned of the dangers of this lack of coordination in a letter weeks before the closure.In the last few days, the military was called on to put down basic tents for those on camp premises.
Some are thermally insulated and can be heated while others are rudimentary and unsuitable for winter conditions. Assurances have been given by the Security Minister that hygiene and health concerns would be addressed, and the camp connected to the electricity grid, but the permanent development is yet to get a final confirmation. For those living outside of the camp area (circa 1,500), there is no permanent solution.
The EU and Pushbacks
BiH local officials have claimed that EU has not been supportive enough in handling the migration crisis, a position challenged by the EU that recently offered another 3.5 million euros in humanitarian assistance, in addition to previous support. The EU is correct to call on the Bosnian government to not play politics with people’s lives and instead provide sufficient reception conditions, both for those inside and outside camps. It is however also of paramount importance that EU sets a positive example for aspiring EU-members by prioritising fundamental rights and taking concerted actions to end impunity for the violence and pushback at the Croatian-Bosnian.
Though reported on for years, the gravity and frequency of the pushbacks at the Croatian-Bosnian border took shocking proportions in 2020. In October 2020 DRC reported an all-time high, as 1,943 people reported pushbacks to DRC. It is worth remembering though the many cases that go unreported. There was also a record spike in the amount of people that had experienced abuse during a pushback, 64% of all reported cases, also including two cases of sexual abuse.
The human bottleneck we are seeing at the border is primarily a result of pushbacks and border violence by Croatian police, which has created a nearly impenetrable wall for onward movement. As per a statement by the local organisation No Name Kitchen (NNK), refugees are used as a pawn where responsibility is evaded on all sides. 
The Way Forward
As outlined in a joint statement with Amnesty International, what we are seeing is directly linked to EU’s migration and asylum policy which is based on external border protection and responsibility shifting of the protection of displaced people. What is desperately needed is concrete actions and solidarity on the part of EU member states in establishing safe and regular pathways to Europe instead of solely providing emergency funding. Not doing so will allow for further deterioration of the existing situation.