human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Migrant flow picks up in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Update following World day for migrants and refugees

Update: Yesterday 30/09, the authorities of Una Sana Canton decided to finally and forcefully evacuate the Bira camp for migrants, run by IOM, close to the Croatian border. People were intended to be brought to the neighbouring Lipa camp, but due to a lack of capacities many migrants and refugees had to sleep in the cold outside of camps and in the streets. Caritas is deeply saddened by this move which happens ahead of the local elections in the canton. While understanding the challenges of the local population, we acknowledge that this unilateral decision deepens the humanitarian crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina and leaves thousands of people without accommodation, shortly before winter. Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina will continue doing its best to provide support to the persons in need and is in dialogue with its partners to plan the steps ahead.

Since the beginning of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has been taking a huge share of media space, both in Europe and globally. Until that moment, migration used to be on top of the policy and information agenda and European media were often reporting on accidents related to people on the move trying to reach Europe via land or sea. As from March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic took centre stage and little has been reported of the living conditions of migrants in Southern and South-Eastern Europe. Then, the Greek refugee camp of Moria went up in flames , leaving  12,000 women, men and children without food nor shelter , the European Union was reminded of the urgency to find a more human solution and efforts have been made to speed up the process to launch the new EU Pact on migration and asylum.

In the northern part of the Balkan route, the restricted freedom of movement due to COVID-19 led to a relatively calmer situation for migrants in spring and early summer 2020, but as most restrictions have since been lifted, migration flows have picked up again. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, around 30,000 migrants passed through the country in 2019; 8,000 migrants are currently registered and Caritas estimates at least 4,000 more are unregistered. The overall amount of new arrivals is still lower than before the pandemic but around 1,000 persons per month are still entering into the country, mostly from Serbia.The pattern is known: none of these persons wishes to remain in Bosnia and Herzegovina, they all plan to reach Croatia, the closest door of the European Union before entering the Schengen area. This is why most migrants are concentrated in the Una Sana Canton, the northern-most canton of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina which borders with Croatia.

Every day, hundreds of migrants and refugees explore different ways to cross the line between the two countries. Sometimes they succeed and in that case, NGOs report, they are immediately pushed back by border police forces. According to the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in august 2020 1,806 persons experienced pushbacks during their journey. Most of them were apprehended along the BiH – Croatian border but it is now known this happens also in Slovenia and north-eastern Italy, sometimes pushing people four countries back. Pushbacks are extremely concerning since they are in violation of international human rights conventions of the principles stated in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. The new Pact on migration and asylum is introducing mechanism to monitor and prevent this from happening again and we keep hope this will be coherently operational soon.

In the meantime, neighbouring countries like Bosnia Herzegovina and regions like the Una Sana Canton are struggling to keep the situation under control. In Una Sana, for example, the upcoming local elections are motivating local authorities to try to convince the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to close down the existing camps , pushing resident migrants and refugees picked up in the street to stay in Lipa camp. In Lipa there is no running water, no health facilities and definitely not enough capacity to accommodate that many persons. It seems the perfect recipe to set a ticking time bomb similar to Moria. In neighbouring areas, the situation seems not to be much better. Social tensions have been growing between the local population and the migrants. The first group is upset as the uncontrolled presence of migrants and has started to organize protests and to confront them, sometimes not allowing local residents to enter shops or cafés. A few clashes have already been registered and it is likely this will worsen until new solutions are found.

Within this framework, Caritas tirelessly struggles to seed the sows of hope and dignity, serving migrants and refugees living in vulnerable situations and under poor living conditions. Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina keeps operating its two laundry services in camps in Bihać and Tuzla, not far from the border with Serbia and it is preparing to open a third one in Ušivak, in the outskirts of Sarajevo. Caritas also continues its distribution of food and of hygiene packages, both inside camps and for migrants and refugees living in the streets. Caritas is also co-running social cafés inside reception centres, aware that a simple cup of tea and a calm chat do more than one might think. The response model adopted in Bosnia Herzegovina was inspired by the successful model implemented by Caritas Serbia already five years ago and it can be considered as a good practice to be replicated where needed. Just like Caritas BiH, Caritas organisations in other Balkan countries, including in Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, and Greece continue supporting migrants as well as the share of the local population who are in vulnerable situations and poverty, always in coordination with local institutions and international organizations, if present.

On the occasion of 2020 World day for Migrants and Refugees, which is marked on September 27th, Pope Francis announced he will send a ‘concrete sign of support and closeness to migrants in Bosnia Herzegovina’. The news was received with a deep sense of joy and gratitude by all Caritas and partners active in the region, who acknowledge this is also a sign of recognition for the work done until now. The donation will serve to support the establishment of two services in the transit centre of Ušivak and Sedra (close to Bihać) where unaccompanied families and minors are accommodated. Services will include, first, the reception and psycho-social support as well as leisure activities and, secondly, the distribution of aid, containing clothing, sanitary supplies, blankets and food.

Our response to the challenges posed by contemporary migration can be summed up in four verbs: welcome, protect, promote and integrate. Yet, these verbs do not apply only to migrants and refugees. They describe the Church’s mission to all those living in the existential peripheries, who need to be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated.

Pope Francis’ message for 2019 World Day of Migrants and Refugees