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Migrants in Bosnia-Herzegovina: winter is coming and many risk sleeping outdoors

With the former Balkan route closed, large numbers of refugees are arriving via Sarajevo. Estimates vary because law enforcement authorities fail to register all arrivals. Temporary accommodation is being organized in view of the harsh Balkan winter. But there won’t be enough room to accommodate everyone. While tension is rising amidst the local population. The daily stories of refugees helpers, Caritas workers and Father Tvrtko Barun, Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service-South-East Europe

“Zima ide” means “Winter is coming” in Bosnian. This expression recurred over the past days with regard to refugees arriving in Bosnia-Herzegovina. With the former Balkan route closed, large numbers of refugees are arriving via Sarajevo. The numbers vary because law enforcement agencies failed to register all new arrivals, but it is estimated that over 12 thousand asylum-seekers have entered the Balkan country since the beginning of the year. In fact according to the Minister of Security Dragan Mektic, approximately 15 thousand people have entered the country according to provisional estimates, 14 thousand of whom are asylum-seekers. They fled from Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Iran, and Pakistan, inter alia.
Arrivals increased dramatically during the summer: approximately 2 thousand people every month, and the trend has remained the same at the beginning of the autumn season”  

Daniele Bombardi, representative of Caritas Italy in the Balkans, told SIR. While the fingerprinting registration system is due to be activated, Bombardi said, “most migrants are stationed in two areas located on the Croatian border – Bihac and Velika Kladusa.” Five thousand people are in Bihac alone – according to figures released by the Red Cross – one thousand of whom are sleeping outdoors.
Growing tension is recorded also among the local population: mass protests against migrants and against authorities’ inability to handle the situation took place on October 20-21 in the two border towns. Local media described escalating hostilities with near accidents. In response to all this and as an act of desperation, hundreds of refugees have lined up headed towards the Croatian border where they were stopped by roadblocks set up by the police.
Winter in tents? For the time being most migrants are living in temporary accommodation units that vary from place to place. In Bihac the refugee population have occupied an abandoned student house and in Velika Kladusa they set up a tent camp in the premises of an ex-industrial complex, while others have occupied abandoned houses with no central heating, whose owners fled during the war or migrated abroad.

“Winter temperatures here drop below zero and ensuring accommodation to all is a huge problem”, Bombardi said.

Moreover, despite various reports filed by organizations dedicated to helping immigrants, the government has done very little for them until the election of October 7 for fear of political attacks. Now that elections are over intervention programs are due to be put into action with two migrant reception centres: the Bihac student home (currently without windows) that will be restructured, and the barrack of Hadzici, near Sarajevo, that is supposed to be fully functioning by October 24.
Caritas’ response. In the meantime the local Caritas centre has been distributing food and made plans in view of the cold season. “Until now we ensured the provision of basic necessities: fresh fruit and vegetables, canned food, meat, baby food, hygiene products”, Dijana Muzicka, coordinator of the Caritas Bosnia-Herzegovina emergency service, told SIR. In this period there is a great need of warm clothing items “because migrants are dressed inappropriately for the cold season.” Clothes will be handed out in various migrant reception centres in the coming weeks: “A laundry service will be set up in Bihac, where refugees will be able to wash and tumble-dry their clothes.” She pointed out:

“We are trying to meet the needs of these people”

Italian organizations (but civil and of the Church) are determined to help the migrant population of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But “it is preferable to act through Caritas or the Red Cross to ensure the optimal arrival of aids to the needy”.

Winter emergency. “Despite the measures taken by local authorities to organize migrants’ accommodation, it is feared that Bosnia won’t manage to handle the situation during the winter season”, Bombardi said. “There are not enough beds and many of those who have already crossed the border will not be transferred throughout the rest of the Country.” It is possible that “a number of refugees will decide to spend the cold months in a safe place, for example in Serbia, whose migrant centres are already up and running.” Or they might continue living in abandoned homes, “an option which triggers tensions between the migrant population and local citizens.”

Violence on the Croatian border. In the meantime worrying news arrives from the Croatian border, with increasing reports of episodes of violence and theft against migrants perpetrated by the Croatian police. The situation was addressed by Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic. Jesuit Father Tvrtko Barun, Director of the Jesuit Refugee service for South-East Europe, who has been living in Bihac for the past three months, provided a first-hand account: “Refugees reported also positive experiences with the Croatian police, but many of them said they were forcibly rejected from the border and that their cell phones were destroyed by the police.” “In fact – he added – Zagreb has virtually closed the border with the excuse of preparing for the Schengen area and migrants refuse to remain in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the State lacks the means to welcome them and the political will to address the issue in an effective way.” “This ultimately leads to a critical, unresolved situation, whose consequences weigh heavily on the migrant population, the most vulnerable people”, he concluded.

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