According to humanitarian organizations, hundreds of migrants have slept in the open air or in abandoned buildings in freezing temperatures this month, while snow has covered the mountains of northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Some of those staying in a devastated migrant camp have had to resort to washing themselves in the snow due to lack of heated facilities or to queue barefoot to receive food. Many suffer from scabies and a high fever.
The mayor of the city of Bihac, 25 kilometers north of the camp, has refused to reopen a European Union-funded housing facility for the migrants, which operated for nearly two years until it closed in the fall. Now aid agencies and the military are trying to provide humanitarian assistance as the temperature has dropped below 15 degrees Fahrenheit at night.
"It is an unlivable place. We are not even talking about meeting basic humanitarian standards", says Nicola Bay, the country director of the Danish Refugee Council, which has provided winter clothes and medical assistance to the migrants. .
The extreme cold is just the latest misery in a saga set over the years that took a dark turn last month when humanitarian organizations were forced to dismantle the Lipa camp after it was deemed unsafe. When migrants evacuated, a fire destroyed most of the tents there, forcing them to take refuge in the devastated camp's hulk or in abandoned buildings and icy wooded areas surrounding it.
More than 1,700 people have slept outside in the harsh conditions, the European Union said this month.
On New Year's Eve, Bosnian authorities vowed to transfer the stranded migrants "very quickly" to the nearby housing facility in Bihac. But two weeks after the start of 2021, that facility has remained closed, and a Bosnian government minister has acknowledged that it is likely to remain so.
Bosnia faces increasing criticism from the European Union and others for failing to provide migrants with basic humanitarian assistance as required by international law.
"Hundreds of people, including children, sleep outside in freezing temperatures in Bosnia and Herzegovina," said Janez Lenarcic, the European Commissioner for Crisis Management. said earlier this month. "This humanitarian disaster could be prevented if the authorities were to create sufficient winter-ready shelter capacity in the country, including using existing facilities."
Since Bosnia became a route for thousands of people hoping to reach Europe in 2018, the European Union has provided EUR 89 million, or more than $ 108 million, to the country's authorities or organizations working there as part of a larger strategy to the influx of migrants at the external borders. (Bosnia is not part of the European Union, but it does border Croatia.)
Yet the coronavirus pandemic has almost completely halted the movement of migrants along the so-called Western Balkan route and, according to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency, more than 8,000 migrants have been stranded in Bosnia. While 6,000 of them live in residential centers, nearly 2,000 are in dire conditions across the country.
Last year, 17,000 migrants traveled through Bosnia, up from 29,000 in 2019. But human rights groups say the crisis is worse this winter as authorities fail to accommodate them.
The migrants in northwestern Bosnia are facing increasing hostility from the local population.
In October, regional authorities, who have complained for years about bearing the brunt of the European Union's migration problems, evicted more than 400 migrants from the now-closed housing facility in Bihac and kept them closed ever since. More than 80 minors were moved to other housing centers, but more than 300 men were left without shelter.
Most of them moved to the Lipa camp, which was set up in April as a temporary response to the Covid-19 pandemic to accommodate up to 1,600 people. The camp was never isolated or equipped with heating stoves, and organizations say they have told authorities it could only be a temporary fix.
Last month it was dismantled and destroyed by the fire.
Across a dirt road from the former Lipa camp, Bosnian military forces have set up about 20 heated tents this week, half of which have holes through which icy winds cut, according to Mr. Bay of the Danish Refugee Council. Yet hundreds of migrants are housed in the tents, which are managed by the Red Cross.
About 1,500 other migrants have stayed in the ruins of the former camp that burned down last month or in abandoned buildings with no electricity and running water nearby.
"On the one hand, the central government has attempted to reopen the site in Bihac intended to house migrants, and on the other, local authorities and populations have refused to let them in," said Peter Van der Auweraert, Western Balkans. . coordinator for the International Organization for Migration. "Migrants are in the middle of this."
Selmo Cikotic, Bosnia's Minister of Security, acknowledged that the situation was unsustainable and that migrants were victims of Bosnia's political disorder.
Under the Bosnian constitution, both the central government and local authorities, also known as cantons, are responsible for the enforcement of human rights. But regulating the use of local land is the responsibility of the regional authorities, which also monitor the police.
"There is, from some elements of the Bosnian political system, a lack of solidarity, a lack of adherence to European and universal values that we stated we are close to," said Mr Cikotic in a telephone interview. "We do not have a functioning mechanism to resolve the opposition from the authorities in the canton," he added regarding the Una-Sana area, home to the Lipa camp and Bihac.
Mr Cikotic, who met with ambassadors from European countries and representatives of the European Union in the Lipa camp on Thursday, ruled out the use of force to open the housing facility in Bihac.
That has angered humanitarian organizations.
"Every year we have this winter crisis and an emergency response is developed at the last minute," said Mr Bay of the Danish Refugee Council. "But this year we don't, and you can see how fragile the situation is," he added.
"They ask," When can I go to a tent? "He said of the migrants." They have no idea what is happening to them. "
On the Croatian side has the police tried to close the route to Bosnia and humanitarian organizations have reported numerous abuses by law enforcement officials.
Aleksandar Panic, the Red Cross disaster preparedness coordinator in Bosnia, said some migrants have given up hope of reaching the European Union through Croatia, and are instead heading back to Serbia, on Bosnia's eastern border, hoping to make their way. to the European Union via Romania.
"Meanwhile, the camps in Sarajevo are full, and the weather forecast around the Lipa camp is not going in our favor," Panic said. "We don't know if we can heat the tents sufficiently."