The images the dismantling and burning down of the Lipa camp in North-West Bosnia and Herzegovina have been all over the media in the last few weeks. Hundreds of migrants continue to survive in snowy mountain areas, queuing in sandals in freezing conditions for a bit of food, sleeping rough in the woods or in abandoned buildings. This humanitarian disaster is happening just a few kilometres away from the Croatian border, once more on the doorstep of the European Union.
Many of these people are fleeing from countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq, and have already experienced violence and pushbacks by border guards and vigilante groups in several countries while trying to reach the EU in search of protection and more dignified lives.
As a result, many suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and insomnia. Physical ailments include hypothermia, scabies, and skin and chest infections, due to the lack of decent reception conditions and sanitation. “It’s a matter of dignity and human rights. Dogs and cattle are being treated better than these migrants at the moment”, said Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina’s humanitarian officer working on site, Dijana Muzička.
As one MEP rightly questioned during a debate in the European Parliament on the humanitarian situation of migrants at the EU’s borders: Is this how the EU is promoting the European way of life?
This humanitarian disgrace was predictable and entirely avoidable. Since 2018, Bosnia and Herzegovina, has dealt with thousands of migrants transiting through its territory. Around 10,000 migrants are currently in the country, including more than 5,000 people sleeping rough in the North-West, according to Caritas. Things deteriorated at the end of 2020 with increased tensions between migrants and parts of the local population, who are also living under difficult conditions, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In October, the local government decided to close the Bira camp and transferred migrants to the improvised and inadequate Lipa camp, less than 30 kilometres away in the mountains. Caritas and the International Organisation for Migration warned of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe. Two days before Christmas, IOM was forced to close the Lipa camp, which was burned down one week later. Heated tents have now been installed on that same site, while waiting for a new, more adequate camp to be constructed and equipped, possibly in a few months; but conditions remain very precarious.
Humanitarian NGOs like Caritas provide support, but long-term solutions are needed and it is key to reflect on the underlying reasons and policies that have triggered the situation. The European Commission has provided a significant budget to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which includes for the management of this humanitarian crisis. A total of €88 million has been delivered since 2018. With this support, it is true that better conditions, both for decent reception facilities and for setting up an appropriate asylum system could be expected.
However, as NGOs have argued, responsibilities are multi-layered but the EU and its Member States should not shy away from looking at their own failings. Money alone is not a silver bullet solution: How do EU migration policies in the unfolding of this humanitarian crisis at its door?
Since 2015, the increasing securitisation of the EU’s borders, accompanied by the “externalisation” of asylum and migration management to neighbouring countries in effort to decrease migrant arrivals has led to widespread and well documented violence and suffering. Could it be posited that what is happening along the “Balkan route” is partially a consequence of the EU-Turkey deal and the lack of safe and legal pathways to access the EU? Sadly, the EU and its Member States have turned a blind eye on human rights’ infringements and human suffering for too long.
The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is also a European matter. The EU and its Member States must use all the political leverage and financial tools at hand to ensure neighbouring countries receive the appropriate support to provide immediate and decent reception conditions, and put an end to the pushbacks and violence.
More sustainably, and to avoid the repetition of similar humanitarian disasters in the future, it is high time that the EU moved away from the assumption that a Fortress Europe can rid migrants of their aspirations and protection needs, and that neighbouring countries can “manage” migration on their behalf with sticks and carrots. Instead, EU asylum and migration policies must be quickly improved and strengthened, and safe and legal access to Europe should be expanded. Ultimately, the European Pact on Migration and Asylum unveiled in September, which risks reinforcing bottlenecks and misery at the borders, should be thoroughly amended before final agreement. This will be necessary to avoid more humanitarian catastrophes at the EU’s borders.
International Cooperation & Humanitarian Director