Hundreds of migrants have been stranded in a squalid, burned-out tent camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina as heavy snow fell and winter temperatures plummeted.
The refugees and migrants who had taken shelter at the Lipa camp in northwest Bosnia wrapped themselves in blankets and sleeping bags on Saturday to protect against biting winds after a fire destroyed much of the camp earlier this week.
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Located near the border with Croatia, near the town of Bihac, the camp had already been harshly criticised by international officials and aid groups as being inadequate for the needs of those living in it.
Days after the fire, Bosnian authorities have failed to find new accommodations for the refugees at Lipa, leaving nearly 1,000 people out in the cold, with no facilities or heat, eating only meagre food parcels provided by aid groups.
“Snow has fallen, sub-zero temperatures, no heating, nothing,” the International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission in Bosnia, Peter Van Der Auweraert, tweeted.
“This is not how anyone should live. We need political bravery and action now.”
The humanitarian disaster in #BiH #Bihac continues: pictures from former camp “Lipa” now. Snow has fallen, sub-zero temperatures, no heating, nothing. This is not how anyone should live. We need political bravery and action now. @UNmigration @UN_BiH pic.twitter.com/i1fHgqvWhJ
— Peter Van der Auweraert (@PeterAuweraert) December 26, 2020
A joint statement issued on Saturday by multiple aid organisations including the Danish Refugee Council, the UNHCR and the UN Migration Agency urged authorities to find an alternative solution immediately.
“The structures still existing at the location are unsafe and at risk of collapsing, as snowfalls continue. With no heating at the site, frostbite, hypothermia and other severe health problems are already being reported by those stranded at the location,” the statement said.
“It is up to the authorities to provide minimum protection for those stranded outside reception centres in deteriorating winter conditions. This includes those stranded at the Lipa location but also the estimated 2,000 others, forced to try and survive in abandoned buildings and makeshift camps.
“Failing to act with the utmost urgency will put lives at risk.”
‘We will die, so please help us’
Bosnia has become a bottleneck for thousands of migrants hoping to reach Western Europe.
Most are stuck in Bosnia’s northwest Krajina region as other areas in the ethnically divided nation have refused to accept them.
The EU has warned Bosnia that thousands of migrants face a freezing winter without shelter, and it has urged the country’s bickering politicians to set aside their differences and take action.
On Saturday, migrants crowded at the camp to receive water and food provided by Bosnia’s Red Cross as police sought to maintain order. Some migrants wore face shields to protect them from coronavirus.
“We are living like animals. Even animals are living better than us!” said a man from Pakistan who identified himself only by his first name, Kasim.
“If they [do] not help us, we will die, so please help us.”
Plans to relocate the migrants temporarily to a closed facility in central Bihac have prompted protests by residents.
Left without a solution, migrants put down cardboard on the floor and set up improvised barriers for privacy inside the only standing tent at the Lipa camp.
Some people held their wet feet above the small fires lit outside to warm up, while others wrapped up tight in blankets for warmth. Many only had sneakers to wear in the snow.
To get to Croatia, migrants often use routes over a mountainous area along the border and have accused Croatian authorities of violent pushbacks.
Human rights groups have documented violations by Croatian authorities over the years, including severe beatings and sexual assault of refugees and migrants. Women and minors have not been spared from the violence.