The EU has described Bosnian refugee camps as a humanitarian disaster where a lack of coordination and potentially illegal action from Croatia has left migrants in the lurch in Bosnia.
Bihac is a town in the northwest of Bosnia Herzegovina, set on its Croatian border, where hundreds of migrants on their journey from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia have been accommodated.
Ever since Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia closed their borders to undocumented migrants, Bosnia has been faced with a huge number of people who have become stranded in the country. Many of these have been pushed back to Bosnia by Croatia, even if they succeed in crossing the border.
"Living conditions in Bihac were extremely difficult. I couldn’t stay there, so I tried to cross the border. It was raining heavily in the forest. They sent me back to Bosnia. I will try again, though. The camp is extremely crowded at the border. There’s no room for more people. There’s another camp in the mountains, but there’s no water or electricity there. You sleep under the open sky," says Mahmoud Ali, who doesn’t want to reveal where he comes from and has been making his way to Europe for a better life.
With his two Moroccan friends, Ayoub and Yousef, Ali returned to the capital, Sarajevo, by train to take a shower, wash his clothes and rest for a couple of days before another attempt to cross Croatian border.
They have succeeded in crossing the border many times, but have been caught by Croatian or Slovenian police and sent back to Bosnia. What they experienced during the journey was what they describe as ‘inhumane’.
Media reports say Croatian police beat migrants before they force them back, but Croatia has denied those reports.
“Croatian police caught me and took me to a mountain by car, and then they said ‘get out of the car’. They took my mobile phone and all my money. I was under detention from eight in the morning to eight in the evening. Then they released me at night. I didn’t know where I was and where to go. It was a remote area. Then I walked back to Bihac, then Sarajevo to collect money, then I will try again,” says Ayoub, who is from Morocco.
Ayoub has also been sleeping on the street like his friends and begging in Sarajevo - that is their only hope to finance their next journey.
Camps ‘not for humans’
There are three camps in the area where Mahmoud and Ayoub have been waiting until they cross the border. One of them is Vucjak camp which lacks running water and electricity. The camp is only eight kilometres from the Croatian border, and the nearby woods are littered with landmines left over from the war in the 1990s.
“The situation in Vucjak camp is a humanitarian disaster,” said Peter Van der Auweraert, Western Balkans Coordinator for the International Organisation for Migration, speaking to TRT World.
“People are making fires inside the tents because of cold weather. They need to take a shower outside while it is three or four degrees. The camp is ‘self-managed’ by migrants which means a small minority with a criminal background is controlling what is happening in the camp. It is a horrible place.”
While Turkey has been hosting around four million Syrian refugees, Bosnia Herzegovina has been criticised for failing to create better conditions for around 10,000 migrants and refugees. One thousand are staying in Vucjak camp.
According to Van der Auweraert, it is normal for a country to have financial problems while providing better conditions for the migrants, but 1,000 people should not be a problem even for Bosnia Herzegovina, which has a population of 3.5 million. He says the problem is political inaction.
“The problem I think of Bosnia and Herzegovina is that in a country like let’s say…Belgium and France… at some point, there is someone at the central level who says, okay I have listened to all of you, but these are the sites where we are going to establish this accommodation, and this is what is lacking in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The state’s council of ministers has not asserted its authority to say ok we understand that nobody wants it, but we have to have it,” Van der Auweraert explained.
Political infighting and xenophobia
The Bosniak members of the presidency of Bosnia Herzegovina, Sefik Dzaferovic, blame the Croat and Serb members of government and says the lack of coordination, political infighting and xenophobia are the main problems.
“The burden of the migrant crisis needs to be shared equally across all of Bosnia’s territories. We have officials representing municipalities populated by Serb and Croat majorities who are rejecting the thought of establishing a single migrant camp in their localities, based on where these people come from. But I will insist the burden be shared across all of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ” Sefik Dzaferovic says.
The refugee camps in Bosnia Herzegovina are located only in Muslim-populated areas in the country like Sarajevo, Tuzla, Bihac etc.
Turkish Red Crescent aid
While around 1,000 people have been suffering in the isolated Vucjak camp, Turkish Red Crescent sent five aid trucks including shelter, food and other much-needed stuff for migrants.
“Our expectation is as soon as possible to close this makeshift camp and allocate a proper land for us to set up a more humane refugee camp,” said the head of Turkish Red Crescent and Vice President of the International Federation of Red Cross Europe, Kerem Kinik, who visited the camp and met with local authorities in Bihac on Thursday.
The aid provided by the Turkish Red Crescent will be distributed to camps in Bosnia Herzegovina in coordination with the Bosnian government as well as the Red Cross. The ultimate goal for the Turkish Red Crescent is to find another place for the migrants where they have basic needs taken care of.
Sadikullah Rahmanzai, from Afghanistan, came to the camp a couple of days ago and claimed to have been beaten by Croatian police. Speaking to Kinik, he said: “We are human beings, but the people do not care, they don't look at us as human beings, because if we are human beings. They must treat us as human beings.”