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Refugees stuck in hopeless situation in Bosnia

Marina Strauss
January 10, 2021

Tents, mud and cold: Refugees are contending with miserable conditions in Bosnia-Herzegovina as the EU continues to keep its borders closed, Marina Strauss reports from Bihac.

Bosnia-Herzegovina refugee camp
Refugees have taken to living in makeshift forest camps in BosniaImage: Marina Strauß/DW

Twenty-five-year-old Raheel Zafar from Karachi, Pakistan, said he had already tried to walk from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Croatia six times, through the forest and across the mountains. He was stopped each time by the Croatian border police, who beat him and robbed him.

The 30 men who have set up camp here in a forest outside the Bosnian town of Velika Kladusa all have a similar story to tell. In front of each tent, two or three people sit warming themselves or cooking over small fires.

Zafar, who is wearing plastic slippers, leads the way around the camp. Half the people here are refugees from Pakistan, half from Bangladesh. Together they have built a mosque out of sheets of plastic, with prayer rugs inside. The entrance is very muddy, as it is everywhere in the camp. It rained overnight, and it's supposed to get colder at the weekend, with more snow on the way.

What will the EU do to help migrants stranded in Bosnia?

There is some accommodation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but not enough to house all the refugees — around 8,000 — currently in the country. Some, like Raheel Zafar, say they prefer being here to in a hostel, where he's afraid others will rob him.

Zafar is also here because it's only a few kilometers from Velika Kladusa to the Croatian border — which is to say, the external border of the European Union. Like almost all the migrants here, Zafar doesn't want to stay in Bosnia; he wants to go to Germany, Italy or Sweden. Zafar is sure that everything will be better as soon as he's in Frankfurt with his friends — not like here in the mud, and not like in Pakistan, where he couldn't see any future.

EU remains shut

After the great movement of refugees in 2015, EU countries such as Hungary effectively closed their borders, which is why, since then, more people have been trying to enter the EU via Bosnia-Herzegovina. And some of them do make it, despite the Croatian border police. There are spots in the forest camp where tents used to be, and where there are now just a few muddy stakes sticking out of the ground. Those left behind tell themselves their former neighbors are in Italy now.

It's only just over 25 years ago Bosnia-Herzegovina itself was at war. There are many people here who know what it is to flee your home. Some, though, have had enough of the migrants in their border region.

An infographic shows the land routes taken by displaced people to the European Union

The Bira refugee hostel in Bihac, an hour's drive south of Velika Kladusa, closed down a while ago. But that has not stopped one local woman with long, dyed-blonde hair from demonstrating outside it for months, along with several dozen others. The group has set up a little camp of its own, where they grill sausages, hand out cans of Fanta, and exchange stories about migrants they say stole from them, or used their front gardens as toilets.

All of them are determined to prevent refugees moving back into the accommodation in their neighborhood, even though the authorities have assured them that that isn't going to happen. "We're not racists," says the blonde woman, who does not want to give her name. "But they don't want to stay here anyway. They want to go to Europe. So, dear EU: Open your borders and take them in."

Neglected by EU

Suhret Fazlic, the mayor of Bihac, also blames the EU for the current situation. But he is critical of the state government in Sarajevo as well. Many in Bihac and the surrounding canton of Una-Sana, here at the border with the EU, feel their government has abandoned them to provide for and accommodate the refugees themselves.

Fazlic says the EU's attitude to refugee and asylum issues is hypocritical and its funding often misplaced. "During the migration crisis, the EU paid out so much money for Bosnia — but Bihac never saw a single euro. We had to manage with our own resources," Fazlic said at the town hall.

A burned-down camp for displaced people in Bosnia-Herzegovina
The Lipa Camp burnt down, but many of its inhabitants have returnedImage: Marina Strauß/DW

According the European Commission, since 2018 the EU has paid more than €88 million ($108 million) either directly to Bosnia-Herzegovina or to partner organizations taking care of refugees on the ground. One of these partners is the International Organization for Migration (IOM). But shortly before Christmas, the IOM closed its Lipa camp 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Bihac. The organization says it closed the camp in protest against the Bosnian authorities' refusal to make the accommodation winterproof.

Indeed, the camp was only meant to be a temporary measure anyway: Lipa was opened in April 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as an interim solution for the summer.

Camp Lipa almost completely burned down shortly after it was cleared, after which more than 1,000 people returned and sought refuge in the forest, or built makeshift shelters on the site. Now the Bosnian army has put up new tents, but many of the refugees say they're completely inadequate. Ashfaq Ahmed, from Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, dreams of studying medicine in Germany. He points over at the military-green tents. Several people are dragging mattresses and bed frames inside. We're not animals, he says: "This is no place to live — especially not at this time of year."

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