‘Lives are at stake’: EU urges Bosnia to act to shelter migrants amid freezing conditions

Some 3,000 people are living rough near border in situation dubbed ‘humanitarian disaster’

The European Union has urged Bosnian leaders to stop playing politics with migrants' lives and provide accommodation "immediately" for people living in squalid, freezing conditions near Bosnia's border with Croatia.

Some 70,000 migrants have entered Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2018 and, while the vast majority have managed to move on towards western Europe, an estimated 8,500 are currently in the country, with most of them located in the northwestern Una-Sana canton, from where they try to cross into EU member Croatia.

About 3,000 migrants in the area are sleeping rough near the border in woods, parks, derelict buildings and in what remains of the Lipa camp, a shelter facility without electricity or running water that was almost burned to the ground late last month.

Lipa was opened last spring as a temporary camp to prevent overcrowding elsewhere during the coronavirus crisis, and Bosnian authorities failed to adapt it for winter use while also closing a 1,500-bed facility in the nearby city of Bihac.

"The situation in Una-Sana canton is unacceptable and has to be solved immediately. We cannot wait," said European Commission spokesman Peter Stano.

“This humanitarian disaster could have been prevented if the authorities had acted as asked already before the Christmas period . . . We are talking about hundreds of people in harsh winter conditions, where their health and lives are at stake.”

Funding pledge

The EU pledged this week to provide €3.5 million for migrants facing immediate danger in Bosnia, bringing to more than €88 million the amount of migration-related aid it has disbursed to the country and aid groups working there since 2018.

“Long-term solutions are urgently needed. The Bosnian authorities should behave like the authorities in an aspiring EU country, and people’s lives cannot be sacrificed for internal political power struggles,” Mr Stano said.

Officials in Una-Sana canton say they have received little or no help in coping with the migrants from national authorities and other regions in Bosnia, which is still divided along ethnic lines and burdened by a dysfunctional powersharing system introduced after its 1992-5 war.

With snowy and freezing weather already setting in, the central government in Sarajevo finally agreed last month to convert Lipa into a reception centre with winter facilities, but failed to decide where to house migrants while construction work was taking place.

Transfer blocked

After fire destroyed most of Lipa’s tent accommodation on December 23rd, attempts to transfer about 900 of its occupants to temporary facilities were blocked by local residents and politicians in two separate locations, forcing the migrants to return to the gutted and snowbound camp.

Ambassadors from several EU states met Bosnian security minister Selmo Cikotic last Saturday, and welcomed plans to deploy the military to erect emergency tents at Lipa.

They “urged the authorities to ensure a fully equipped camp at the original Lipa location as quickly as possible”, the EU delegation said.

The envoys also “recognised that a sustainable solution would need to involve a more equal distribution of migrants across the country based on shared responsibility and ensuring dignified living conditions for the migrants on the one hand and the security of [Bosnian] citizens on the other”.