A refugee crisis brews in Bosnia’s bitter winter

Temperatures are freezing in Lipa village, where hundreds who lack shelter and heating have respiratory infections.

A young man lines up for food in the Lipa refugee camp [Elisa Oddone/Al Jazeera]
A young man lines up for food in the Lipa refugee camp [Elisa Oddone/Al Jazeera]

Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities.

Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina – A refugee crisis is brewing in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, where hundreds of people are struggling in freezing weather conditions, with little access to safe shelter, basic medicine, heating or electricity.

At the snow-covered plateau in Lipa village, which is near Bihac, a town on the country’s border with Croatia, temperatures are at best zero and at worst minus eight degrees Celsius (17 degrees Fahrenheit).

Fatigued, in pain, and suffering from the protracted exposure to the cold, refugees move slowly across the area. They are wrapped head to toe in blankets. Hundreds are suffering from respiratory infections.

On December 23, a fire gutted the main camp in Lipa. Tents have since been erected by the Bosnian military, but provide limited comfort from the harsh weather conditions.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 900 people live in the area, including some who have settled in surrounding forests.

On Monday, during a blizzard, asylum seekers Abid, Wasim and Ahmed sat around a fire in an improvised shelter.

The three left Pakistan-administered Kashmir 10 months ago, first crossing into Iran, then Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and eventually landing in Bosnia.

“We left because of the fighting on the border area with India. The situation is extremely volatile there,” Abid told Al Jazeera.

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, a region which has been disputed by the two neighbours since their independence in 1947.

“The reality in Lipa is very bad. There is no roof over our head, there is no end to this,” Abid said. “The system here is not reliable. There are too many problems.

“The new tents have not solved what happened last month. There is no telephone to call home or electricity and toilets. There is nothing.”

The three men want to live in Italy, but have not yet attempted to reach wealthier European countries, unlike many other refugees here.

They had each paid smugglers about 7,000 euros ($8,500), funds gathered through friends, their own savings and donations from family members.

People wait in line for food in Lipa, Bihac, Bosnia [Elisa Oddone/Al Jazeera]
A few paces away, in another makeshift shelter, 22-year-old Anwar* said he has made four unsuccessful attempts in two years to reach Italy.

Croatian police keep returning him to Bosnia.

“As soon as the weather improves, I will try to cross again. I usually walk through the woods and mountains by myself,” Anwar, a Pakistani, told Al Jazeera.

“It is dangerous, but I cannot stop now since I’ve come so close to reaching my goal.”

He added that food distribution had improved in the last couple of days, but its timing remained unpredictable.

“Distribution starts around 9:30 to 10 in the morning, sometimes later, sometimes never. Other times volunteers distribute food twice a day. We line up when we are told so and we see what’s there for us. First come, first served. Food finishes quickly in Lipa.”

According to the IOM, there are approximately 9,000 refugees and migrants in Bosnia overall, including some 6,000 in camps around the capital Sarajevo – which is more than 300 kilometres from Lipa, and in the northwestern region. Nearly 3,000 remain without accommodation.

Since Friday, snow and sleet have battered the land on which the former Lipa refugee camp once stood.

The investigation into last month’s fire is still ongoing, although police have blamed migrants for the blaze.

Its fire-ravaged structure dominates the landscape.

Despite attempts to improve the site, about 170 people live in the rubble, with shelters made of debris spared by the fire that engulfed four large tents and several other facilities.

Some makeshift shelters were filled with smoke, as people cooked using plastic bottles as fuel.

“In the eyes of some refugees, the former camp still provides more safety and warmth than the new tents, also providing a more social and community function,” said Verica Recevic, a programme manager with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC). “They can gather, sit and talk. They don’t see the tents as structures where a regular life can be maintained because they are seen as premises packed with beds and whose structure depends on weather conditions.”

Refugees light fires in an attempt to warm up in Lipa, Bosnia [Elisa Oddone/Al Jazeera]
The Bosnian military set up 12 new tents. Each one can host about 20 people, although COVID-19 regulations restrict access to a lower number.

They are equipped with oil-powered heaters, but several refugees told Al Jazeera that they sometimes failed to work at night, forcing them to move from one tent to another looking for warmth.

DRC assessed 400 refugees with health concerns at the camp on Monday.

“Skin conditions like scabies and respiratory infections were found on one-third of them,” Recevic told Al Jazeera. “Several migrants suffering from Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition, have refused to visit local health reception centres since this would mean leaving their community. They don’t want to be separated amid such a difficult situation.”

Other aid workers have said people could not be treated safely at the site.

The European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, held a call with the Serb chairman of Bosnia’s presidency, Milorad Dodik, on Monday, urging Bosnian authorities to improve conditions and open refugee centres across the country.

A section of the fire-ravaged structure of the former emergency Lipa camp for refugees and migrants [Elisa Oddone/Al Jazeera]
Marsid Buzur, a government official responsible for the entry and stay of foreigners, told Al Jazeera that there were no plans to move refugees in Lipa to another location.

But additional military tents would be set up as a temporary solution, to be later replaced by containers, he said.

Lipa will become an “emergency camp” for at least three months, Buzur told Al Jazeera, adding that new facilities would be constructed whenever the weather conditions would allow.

Members of the local community, Buzur said, have rejected the idea of hosting refugees and migrants in urban centres.

Peter Van der Auweraert, who runs IOM’s Bosnia operations, told Al Jazeera that while he welcomed the new tents as a positive step, the temporary strategy was not a solution.

A 22-year-old man from Pakistan (right) sits with a friend around a fire in a makeshift shelter on the site of the former Lipa camp [Elisa Oddone/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera

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