Thousands of migrants and refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina trapped on the new Balkan route.
Since the closing of Hungary’s external border in the summer of 2015, most migrants in the Balkans have been trying to enter the EU via Croatia. This new Balkan route leads through Bosnia and Herzegovina, either from Serbia or from Albania and then Montenegro. Since then, more than 55,000 migrants and refugees have already used this route to enter Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In August 2020, there were still around 10,000 registered migrants in the country, most of them staying in the western part close to the Croatian border, in Una Sana Canton around the towns of Bihać and Velika Kladuša. 2,618 new persons arrived in the country in August.
The local communities in Velika Kladuša and Sarajevo provided help and shelter to many people during the first months, but this solidarity could not keep up with the ever-growing number of people arriving. The local and national authorities were quickly overwhelmed and started to rely on UN agencies and national and international NGOs to provide support. However, the needs were manifold. The migrants and refugees needed food and drinks, medical support, clean clothes, a place for washing themselves and a place for sleeping.
Since September 2018, Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), in collaboration and coordination with its three Diocesan Caritas of Banja Luka, Mostar and Sarajevo, has been providing different types of support to migrants and refugees with the financial backing of other European Caritas organisations.
During the summer of 2018, smaller activities had already taken place, including distribution of food and equipment to migrant centres. Caritas BiH also undertook a study visit to Caritas Serbia, which has extensive experience in migrant support after almost a million migrants and refugees crossed the country in 2015. Based on their experience, Caritas BiH replicated the idea of a laundry service first in Bihać and, in winter 2020, in Tuzla.
These laundry services allow migrants and refugees to get their clothes washed and to thus improve their hygiene and prevent skin diseases. In the long term, they also save a lot of money as less new clothes need to be given out to replace dirty ones.
In addition, every year Caritas BiH provides so-called ‘winterisation support’ in the form of warm winter shoes to several hundred migrants, mostly children.
Caritas is currently also participating in the distribution of fresh food and hygiene articles, including pharmaceutical items, to various centres throughout the country (Delijaš, Hadžići, Salakovac and different locations in Una Sana Canton). All distributions are coordinated with authorities and other non-government organisations active in these camps.
With no improvement of the migrant crisis in sight, Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina shared a short strategic document outlining its priority areas for the work with migrants and asylum seekers in 2021. The document captures the efforts undertaken since 2018 and presents the new plans in emergency response, in integration and in advocacy.
The conditions of migrants and asylum seekers in Una Sana Canton remain dire. While the authorities of the different government levels of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the international community continue to shift blame and block quick solutions, NGOs, including Caritas, demand long-term solutions to end this entirely man-made emergency.
In an opinion piece published today on EU Observer, Caritas Europa calls on the EU to quickly improve and strengthen its asylum and migration policies and to expand safe and legal access to Europe, in order to avoid more humanitarian catastrophes at the EU’s borders. Read the full opinion.
Update 15 January 2021
At the beginning of January 2021, the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina decided that what used to be Lipa Camp would become a permanent reception camp for the next years. Construction works have already started and the government has provided heated tents to the migrants who remain there. However, the completion of all the necessary infrastructure for the heating, water supply and drainage systems in order to make Lipa camp adequate for the reception of refugees and migrants will require at least two to three months. This means that migrants staying in the camp now have insufficient living conditions. The poor hygienic conditions are aggravated by the freezing weather (-15°C), and together these create an additional challenge in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Update 5 January 2021
72 hours after the fire, the Red Cross was finally allowed to enter the site of the Lipa camp to distribute dried food and some non-food items. Other NGO’s, including Caritas, are currently not allowed to enter. Caritas made available non-food items it had in storage for distribution. The police does not allow the persons in Lipa to return to Bihać town. Some migrants left for Sarajevo, but the majority remain where Lipa camp used to be.
On 28 December, the State government decided to resettle the migrants in an ex-military facility in Sarajevo Canton (Bradina). This never happened as the inhabitants of the site organised a protest. The migrants had been waiting in buses all day and night, but in the end they were sent back to the site of the former Lipa camp.
Yesterday was the third day of protests as migrants refused to take the food provided. They demand accommodation and regular and decent living conditions. Currently, they live in tents set up by the military with only little quantities of cold water, since the local government refuses to re-open the fully functional Bira camp, despite having been ordered to do so by the State government.
The Caritas laundry service in Bira camp has stopped, because the safety of its staff is not guaranteed. However, the laundry service continues in Borići camp in Bihać. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and the Red Cross are also distributing non-food items procured by Caritas. Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to closely monitor the situation and it is ready to step in as soon as possible.
After the local authorities forcefully evacuated Bira camp in September and placed all migrants in a make-shift camp in Lipa, around 25 kilometres outside of the town of Bihać, the living conditions of migrants in Una Sana Canton quickly deteriorated. For many reasons, most of which are political, this camp had no running water, no electricity, no heating. People had to sleep in tents in the cold Bosnian winter. IOM tried negotiating with local authorities to obtain minimum standards, but after endless failed attempts, it withdrew today. And shortly after, the camp went up in flames, causing another humanitarian emergency. Now 1,400 camp dwellers have nowhere to seek adequate shelter. They join 1,500 other migrants who already survive in abandoned buildings across the country.
Update 5 October 2020
On Monday, 5 October, Caritas inaugurated the Social Corner “Saint John-Paul II” in Ušivak camp. A new room for the camp community to gather and socialise. This project is a partnership between Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina, Caritas Italy and IPSIA and was made possible by a donation of Pope Francis.
The morning started with a speech of the Apostolic Nuncio in Bosnia and Herzegovina stressing the significance of this space of solidarity that brings people together and allows them to socialise and form friendships. He also underlined the importance of supporting the people on the move along the Balkan route. The ceremony went on with speeches by the main guests, including the Director of Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina, representatives of the Ministry of Security, and Peter Van der Auweraert, the Head of IOM in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was followed by the first tea distribution to the beneficiaries of the camp, families and unaccompanied and separated children (UASC), which enjoyed a cup of tea in the outdoor space in front of the new Social Corner.
Caritas would also like to thank its partners War Childhood Museum, Youth Center “Ivan Pavao II.”, the Embassy of Italy, as well as the people that were present and everybody who made the creation of the Social Corner possible, in particular Pope Francis and the Apostolic nuncio in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Ušivak camp, Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina is also in the process of opening its third laundry service.
Update 30 September 2020
On Wednesday, 30 September, the authorities in Una Sana Canton sent special police units to forcefully evacuate the Bira camp for migrants in Bihać, run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) near the Croatian border. This fully functioning camp is now empty. People living there were brought to other camps, but due to a lack of capacities, many of them had to sleep in the cold outside of the camps and in the streets. Minors were taken to Borići, while the others were driven to Sarajevo. Special police units also surrounded Miral camp in Velika Kladuša, leading to fears about the same fate for this camp.
Caritas is saddened by this move which deepens the humanitarian crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina and leaves thousands of people without accommodation, shortly before winter. These events are disturbing for all humanitarian actors, and especially so for the people who will need to survive the harsh winter conditions. Up to 2,000 persons are already estimated to survive in the woods around Bihać and the number is increasing.
Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina will continue doing its best to provide support to the persons in need. It is looking into options to continue running its laundry service in Bira camp as a mobile service, meaning that migrants and refugees outside of camps will bring their dirty clothes and receive it washed and dried by Caritas later in the day. Caritas also continues providing non-food items, including sleeping bags, winter shoes, underwear and socks, together with food and hygiene packages, at least until the end of the year, as well as monitor the new developments and is in close contact with IOM.
Update 28 September 2020
The conditions for migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina worsened after the end of the lock-down. In September 2020, 8,000 migrants are officially registered, while Caritas estimates that there are an additional 4,000 unregistered persons. Half of the migrant population is located in the northern Una Sana Canton, the government of which is trying to shut down existing camps to relocate migrants to the new Lipa camp. However, the conditions in this camp are not suitable for persons – even after several months, there is no running water. The population of Una Sana Canton is understandably frustrated and feels abandoned by the federal government, leading to increased tensions with migrant groups. More information about the migrant situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina can be found here.
Caritas still runs its laundry services in Bira camp (Bihać) and in Tuzla, and is preparing to open a third laundry service in Ušivak to support the local migrant camp run by IOM. With funding from Caritas Switzerland, Caritas Italy, Caritas Austria and Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina also continues its distribution of food and hygiene packages and of clothing to migrants and refugees in different camps, reception centres as well as to migrants living in the streets or other substandard shelters.
See an update from Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina here.
Update 18 March 2020
As of yesterday, Bosnia and Herzegovina is officially in a state of emergency due the COVID-19 pandemic. The Director of Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina issued an appeal to all staff members to respect the government’s orders, but without forgetting the people in need who depend on the services of Caritas. Caritas therefore continues its work, even though some non-essential activities are reduced or cancelled.
In Tuzla, the laundry service operates with reduced working: four hours a day, three days a week. It no longer washes the laundry of the two other organisations that are hosting migrants. Only the Red Cross is allowed to provide dry food once a day to migrants in Tuzla, all other support is suspended. The police is enforcing these restrictions.
Visits to camps are reduced to a minimum. Only organisations providing services and basic support can enter. Each person entering needs to take appropriate protection measures. Each camp has a quarantine/isolation space in case a resident shows symptoms of COVID-19. Caritas continues its distributions in Delijaš, Salakovac and to private accommodations. The Caritas laundry service in Bira camp is also still open. It is important to maintain high hygiene standards in the camps.
Update 9 March 2020
The laundry service operated by Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina and Merhamet in Tuzla is up and running since January. Unlike the laundry service in the Bira camp (Bihać), where persons bring and pick up their clothes at the place where they are washed, the Tuzla laundry is a mobile service. Every day, two persons employed by Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina and Merhamet go by car to the Tuzla bus station where most migrants are located and collect their clothes. They take it to a house with two sets of industrial washing and drying machines each. After washing and drying the clothes, they return them the following day. At the same time, they collect a new load of clothes from different persons.
In January the Tuzla laundry provided 98 services (washings), while in February the number rose to 687 services. Together with the laundry service in the Bira camp, Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina provided 7,799 services in the first two months of 2020.
The Tuzla laundry also washes the blankets and sheets of another organisation that only works with smaller household washing machines.
Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina is currently exploring other possibilities to provide support to migrants in Tuzla.
Update 14 January 2020
In 2019, more than 29,000 migrants arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This figure is 21% higher than in 2018. Since the beginning of 2020, fewer people have been arriving, mainly due to the cold winter conditions. Over 7,500 migrants are currently estimated to be in the country, of whom 5,900 are staying in camps. The remaining persons are accommodated by private individuals or squat empty houses. Access to asylum remains a problem. Of the several hundred asylum seekers only three persons received refugee status and 46 persons received subsidiary protection in the past two years.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) opened a new camp for migrants in Blažuj near Sarajevo. It can accommodate 1,500 single men, but is currently experiencing issues with power supply that are expected to be resolved this month. 150 to 180 men were transferred by IOM to Blažuj from the migrant centre in Ušivak. The centre in Ušivak will now only host the most vulnerable migrant groups, including minors and families.
The other large camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Bira Temporary Reception Centre in Bihać, Una-Sana Canton, is exceeding its capacities and currently accommodates 2,223 migrants, 800 persons more than officially approved for this centre. The police is preventing IOM from providing better conditions in the camp and requesting that 800 migrants leave the camp. This is not possible because of lack of alternative structures.
All camps and reception centres in Bosnia and Herzegovina are currently running at full capacity, which explains that there are still children and unaccompanied minors (a child without the presence of a legal guardian) squatting on the streets of Bihać, Velika Kladuša, Sarajevo, Bijeljina, Tuzla and Mostar. Volunteers and local organisations do their best to provide them with accommodation. There are now 660 migrant children in the country, of whom 450 are unaccompanied minors. 84 children living in camps in Una Sana Canton are enrolled in local schools. School enrolment remains an issue in other cantons.
Next week, Caritas and Merhamet will open a new laundry service for migrants in Tuzla. Two previously unemployed persons have been recruited to work in this laundromat. Additionally, Caritas has increased the capacity of its other laundry service in Bira camp by 20% by adding two additional sets of washing and drying machines. Caritas is recognised as a reliable partner in the sectors of water, sanitation and hygiene as well as in the distribution of food for children and non-food items.
In cooperation with its partners, Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina has also put in place a so-called winterisation programme for migrants living outside the camps in Tuzla and Sarajevo. Caritas is distributing winter clothes, 250 pairs of winter shoes and hygiene articles.
Further efforts still need to be made in all locations, especially concerning sanitation, hygiene, food and education. The coordination and collaboration among the different organisations providing support is improving with common needs assessments and information exchanges about implemented activities and needs seen in the field.
Update 11 December 2019
The authorities started evacuating Vučjak camp on 10 December. The evacuation was officially finalised the following day. About 330 migrants were transferred to the new camp of Blažuj and 370 migrants were resettled to the existing camp of Ušivak, both in Sarajevo Canton. Caritas is active in Ušivak where it provides mainly soap, shampoo, tooth brushes and similar items to ensure minimum hygiene standards.
Update 5 December 2019
The Vučjak camp is still open and the police force of Una Sana Canton still forces all migrants to go to this camp. The people staying in Vučijak are refusing assistance, such as food, as a protest against resettlement and to increase pressure on the EU to open its border. The humanitarian conditions in the camp are appalling. A few days ago, the Red Cross estimated that there were still 800 persons dwelling in Vučijak.
In autumn, the federal government identified an alternative location to the Vučjak camp in Blažuj, Sarajevo Canton. However, the local communities and authorities are hostile to the establishment of this camp. The migrants also declared that they could only be relocated there by force. Yesterday, after an announcement of the Minister of Security that all migrants in Vučijak would be transferred to Blažuj, many migrants left the camp towards the Croatian border, while others went into town.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is managing the Bira camp near Bihać and aims to increase the camp’s capacities to an additional 1,000 beds. They want to provide shelter to migrants currently dwelling outside of the camp in the harsh Bosnian winter conditions. However, IOM suffers from restrictions on the number of people they can host imposed by the cantonal government. Caritas continues to run its laundry service in Bira and plans to increase the capacities by adding one additional laundry machine.
A second laundry service will be established in Tuzla by Caritas Sarajevo in collaboration with the Bosnian Muslim NGO Merhamet. In Tuzla, around 180 to 250 migrants are currently squatting around the bus station. They receive support, such as food from volunteers, but do not yet have any possibility to wash their clothes. The laundry service in Tuzla will provide this possibility and, thus, will contribute to improved hygiene and prevent the spreading of skin disease.
Update 18 October 2019
A few months ago, the government of Una Sana Canton opened a campsite on a former landfill in Vučjak, about 10 kilometres outside of Bihać. This site is surrounded by minefields and not appropriate for dwelling. It does not respect basic shelter and sanitation standards. However, by order of the local government police forces are relocating all migrants apprehended in the canton to this new site. The campsite has hosted 300 to 800 people in the past but is currently massively overpopulated with around 1,500 migrants. Around 150 new migrants arrive every day in Una Sana Canton.
The government of Una Sana Canton just announced that it would stop funding Vučjak but that the forced relocation to this site would not stop. It wants to put pressure on the State government to take action in Vučjak by providing financial support for migrant support. The UN agencies IOM and UNHCR do not intervene either. A major humanitarian crisis is looming.
The future of existing UN-administered shelters for migrants in Bihać (Bira reception centre where Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina is working) and in Velika Kladuša (Miral center) is also unclear. Larger numbers of migrants have also started arriving in the city of Tuzla. They come mostly from Serbia into the Republika Srpska and are escorted by the police forces of this entity to the closest town in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is Tuzla. The migrants sleep in and around the bus station and receive help from volunteers. IOM is trying to escort families with children to safer locations, but they can only do this if these families registered with the Office for Foreigners in Tuzla, which is only open from 8 am to 4 pm. If the families didn’t register by 4 pm, IOM cannot house them in one of their centres. Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina will search for possibilities in establishing an office and employ new staff in cooperation with Diocesan Caritas to establish a presence in Tuzla.
Italian television magazines Presa Diretta, TG LA7 and Studio Aperto accompanied Caritas staff working with migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and documented the miserable conditions in Vučjak. A photo series of the living conditions of migrants in these countries can be found here.
Update 30 June 2019
The initial phase of funding for Caritas BiH’s work to improve the living conditions of migrants and refugees stranded in the country ended on 30 June 2019. However, since the situation has not improved, Caritas BiH continues providing support under new funding that has already been fully secured.
Over the initial 10-month period, to make the biggest possible impact to the benefit of people in need, Caritas BiH dedicated the largest amount of resources to the laundry service in the Bira camp. Approximately 13,000 people benefitted from this service.
The remaining funds were used for smaller scale activities, such as the provision of food and hygiene products and winterisation activities in the different camps.
Caritas BiH provided support to 380 children aged 0-5 years in the Salakovac, Hadžići, Delijaš and Una Sana Canton camps. Due to their young age, these children have special dietary and nutritional needs as well as require specific hygienic and sanitary products. Caritas BiH also carried out monthly distributions of hygiene products in the Ušivak camp.
In the Delijaš camp, Caritas BiH distributed fresh food to 1,421 people, mainly vegetables, fruits and milk which are not found in the monthly food packages provided by the Ministry.
497 migrants, mainly children, received winterisation support in the form of appropriate winter shoes.
Additional activities consisted of the distribution of monthly supplies of tea and coffee (in Delijaš) at the tea and coffee corner where asylum seekers could also seek psychosocial support and attend cooking or language classes. Caritas BiH also provided medical materials to support the management of the Salakovac camp in establishing an ambulance.
To continue aiding migrants and refugees stranded in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Caritas BiH will maintain its activities aimed at improving living conditions, mainly via the provision of quality nutrition, particularly to children under the age of 5, and of personal hygiene items, especially for families with children. Caritas BiH will also aim at improving the quality of social life of migrants in the camps. The main activity will continue to be the provision of the laundry service.
Update 24 May 2019
During the first ten months of the emergency, Caritas BiH assisted more than 15,000 migrants and refugees with an initial budget of €90,000 provided by Caritas Austria, Caritas Belgium, Caritas Italy, Caritas Spain and Caritas Switzerland. However, with the Croatian police illegally using violence to push back migrants, most people are now stuck in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the needs are not decreasing. In fact, the humanitarian situation has worsened in some camps. Caritas BiH decided to continue its activities building on the past experiences.
Caritas BiH made a call for new funds to cover the support for the next ten months. Together with its Diocesan Caritas, Caritas BiH is continuing the monthly distribution of fresh food and hygiene packages, as well as the provision of food and non-food items for small children. The main support remains the laundry service, which thousands of migrants can access every month in the Bira camp. It works with four washing machines and four dryers. These industrial machines have the capacity to wash up to eight kilos of clothes at a time and with a shorter cycle than what domestic machines have, they are capable of completing up to 35 washing cycles per day. Caritas employs two full time and two part time staff to work in the laundry service. As part of lessons learnt during the first 10 months of the emergency, the working hours of the laundry service have been extended and it is now also open on Saturdays.
The laundry service is essential to guarantee minimum hygiene standards in the Bira camp, which currently hosts more than 1,000 people, most of whom are young men. Because of the limited capacities, IOM is running a second laundry service that only washes bedlinen, pillows, blankets and other items needed to run the camp.