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Vucjak camp in November 2019
Vucjak camp in November 2019 -
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Migrant in Vucjak camp

Aid workers fear winter 'humanitarian catastrophe' at Bosnia migrant camp

Usman Ali has walked all the way to Bosnia from his native Pakistan with his 16-year-old brother for what he hopes will be a better life in Western Europe.

But he's now stuck at a tent settlement in Vucjak — a former landfill site eight kilometres from the Croatian border — and not able to continue his journey to his desired destination, Italy.

Like many other migrants, the Pakistani was stopped at the border by Croatian police and was sent directly to the old waste dump.

Ali said that the living conditions in Vucjak, which was set up by local Bosnian authorities, are "very, very bad."

“Very, very bad without electricity, without water, too cold,” he told Euronews via Whatsapp.

The 25-year-old added that most days they don't have enough food with the local Red Cross being the only ones providing it.

Migrant in Vucjak camp
Local Red Cross giving food rations to migrants in Vucjak campMigrant in Vucjak camp

Medecins Sans Frontieres has set up a medical clinic there to try to provide some medical assistance to the camp's inhabitants.

Ali, who's now spent two months in the settlement, is one of the hundreds of other migrants from the Middle East and Asia also living in the freezing camp.

Bosnia has seen an increase in the number of migrants ever since Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia closed their borders against illegal immigration.

Since 2018, more than 40,000 migrants have been registered in Bosnia Herzegovina, according to IOM (International Organisation for Migration) data.

Now there are 7,000 migrants in the country purely in transit.

"I would say that 99% of people in Bosnia Herzegovina are here because they want to cross into Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and either stay there or move onwards," said Peter Van der Auweraert, the Western Balkans Coordinator for the IOM.

Winter is coming

Aid workers are extremely concerned about how the cold weather will affect migrants. According to Van der Auweraert, the IOM provides 4,200 beds in official accommodation spaces but the problem is that the remaining 2,800 are sleeping in rough conditions in settlements like Vucjak.

Van der Auweraert said that the IOM and other NGOs have flagged the lack of accommodation to local authorities but they haven't received any appropriate response yet.

In the aid worker's opinion, the problem is only getting worse with dipping temperatures. He fears the risk of death will increase if migrants are left there during the coldest months.

Conditions in Vucjak are "substandard and certainly not adequate at all for the winter."

REUTERS/Marko Djurica
Migrants queue for food donation inside Vucjak campREUTERS/Marko Djurica

Nihal Osman, the deputy field coordinator for Serbia and Bosnia, told Euronews it was "really important" that the accommodation capacity is increased.

She added that Vucjak's closing was "urgent" because the place was "not fit for humans" and "wouldn't last the winter."

On top of the humanitarian crisis exacerbating in the Vucjak camp, officials in the northwest Bosnian town of Bihac have threatened to close down the Bira migrant centre, located in an old factory in the town, as early as next week.

For Van der Auweraert, this would be a "catastrophic" decision.

"If that decision was taken and enforced, that means that you would add to the people currently sleeping outside — let’s say that’s 2,000 — another 1,300 people with nowhere to go.

"Which would obviously be catastrophic for the migrants and the local population because people are going to be outside in the cold and will start breaking into houses, steal food, etc."

Why did Bosnian officials create the Vucjak camp in the first place?

The Vucjak settlement was created by Bihac's city council when the local population became frustrated with the growing migrant presence.

"I understand the frustration in a town like Bihac which has been having a lot of migrants and do not have the capacity. So people were sleeping in the city centre, so they needed a new place to accommodate migrants," said Van der Auweraert.

However, the aid worker said the IOM had warned officials that the place was not suitable for human habitation. Back in July, the UN-body released a statement condemning the Bosnian decision to relocate migrants to Vucjak.

Van der Auweraert said he did not understand why the city council went through with their plan despite the early warnings that relocating people there would cause a "humanitarian disaster".

There are health and fire risks related to the site, which lacks running water and electricity. Moreover, the nearby woods are littered with landmines left over from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

"It was very clear that in the conditions of the site when they decided to move forward, that they were creating a humanitarian catastrophe," said Van der Auweraert.

Osman said that health conditions related to the poor living conditions were on the rise in Vucjak.

"We've seen so a lot of skin diseases [commonly scabies] and infections and since August, we’ve been seeing more violence," she said, adding that the health problem is definitely increasing.

So what are some solutions?

Aid workers from the IOM and other humanitarian NGOs have called on local authorities to stop plans to close down the Bira camp and to provide additional accommodation that can house migrants sleeping rough in Vucjak and other places.

Van der Auweraert argued finding solutions to this looming crisis are definitely within the reach of local authorities — but whether they want to act on it, that's another story.

"The financial resources are there, the EU has committed to supporting additional migrant centres, the human resources are there, IOM and other organisations are ready to provide support tomorrow," he said.

The European Union has given Bosnia 34 million euros since 2018 to help manage the migrant crisis.

"It’s very unfortunate we got to this point because the warnings were there, the resources were there, the political lobbying was there, there’s just been inaction at different levels to actually move the file forward," Van der Auweraert added.

REUTERS/Marko Djurica

What is stopping Bosnian officials from providing a solution to the crisis?

Van der Auweraert said that the first challenge was the decentralised nature of the Bosnian government.

"You have to work your way through the federal, the state government, the council authorities and the municipal authorities."

Any decisions on allocating additional accommodation are taken at the state level whereas the decision to close down the Bira camp is taken by the Bihac city council.

The aid worker added that because the current political situation in Bosnia is in flux, things are even more complicated than normal.

Local elections also make things more difficult according to the IOM coordinator.

"At the municipal level and council level, there are very few politicians who are willing to stick out their neck and say they don’t mind having the migrant accommodation in their locality.

Ultimately, "there is no one that can make a decision" on the migrant issue, concluded Van der Auweraert.

However, the aid worker believes things will have to get really bad before they get even an ounce better.

"Nobody wants migrants to die in the winter and if we don’t find a solution quickly they will.

"It’s unfortunate that we had to get so close to the wire to make this type of decision. The changing weather will make people realise that we need to make some decisions."

What has been the government's response?

Bosnia's Interior Ministry for comment told Euronews in an email they plan to open new camps for migrants — one in Western Bosnia and the other one near Sarajevo. They said they were waiting on local governments to approve the locations.

It seems to be no secret that local governments are having a tough time dealing with the migrants. Back in 2018, Euronews interviewed Suhret Fazlic, the mayor of Bihac, who said people coming to Bihac "needed to be stopped," adding the city also should get some compensation for the damage the migrants had caused.

Fazlic said that the migrant problem was a "European problem" and that "European countries such as Croatia, Italy, Austria, Germany (...) should receive these people" because ultimately they all wanted to move onwards.

So while the lack of response gets in the way of finding appropriate shelter for the more than 2,000 migrants sleeping rough, what is Ali planning to do this winter? Try to cross the border again of course.

"I try to game again," he said, with "game" meaning trying to cross the border, which for many migrants has become a game Ali explained.

"Inshallah, this time I win," he said, before saying good night.

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