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Commentaries Governance and Multilateralism

The Root Causes of BiH Refugee Crisis

On the 23rd of December the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) closed its Lipa camp (30 km from Bihać) due to the impossibility to proceed in giving access to those insufficient housing solutions. According to the European Commission, last year the EU has devolved more than EUR 88 million either to Bosnia-Herzegovina or to other organisations taking care of refugees in the country. Among these partners, IOM has been the one managing the situation for most of the time until the Bosnian government stepped in. The organisation actually highlighted Bosnian authorities’ lack of commitment for the construction of winterproof accommodation. In fact, the camp was intended to be only an interim solution for the summer because of the COVID-19 health emergency with the idea that the government would have solved the situation promptly.

To the verge of despair, refugees set fire to the site and sought shelter in the forest. The Lipa camp housed around 1,500 people when actually had an availability for 1,000.[1]  Among the ashes of the camp, the Bosnian military set up new temporary tents however not equipped for the cold weather. The IOM and other organisations on the ground including the Danish Refugee Council and Save the Children has warned that the lives of hundred of migrants at “are at immediate risk” because of heavy snowfalls and below-freezing temperatures.[2] The humanitarian agency Care International Sumka Bucan said that conditions in Lipa were “inhumane”. People were sleeping rough outside the camp and many others were still wearing sandals in the snow.[3] Due to no heating system, there has been a huge development of frostbite and hypothermia cases as well as other sever health problems.[4]

In the meantime, borders with the European Union are inaccessible due to alleged violations made by Croatian police force. It has been estimated that 2 refugees out of 3 who tries to enter the border, are pushed back to Bosnia and Herzegovina after facing various forms of violence and torture.

According to Amnesty International, around 2,500 refugees are currently living in extremely precarious conditions in the whole northwest region.

EU response consisted in the visit of the Lipa camp site by the Ambassador Johann Sattler. Also Germany and Austria mobilised their ambassadors who decided to visit the camp as well. The diplomats were accompanied by the Bosnian Security Minister Selmo Cikotić. After the fire, refugees were to be transferred to a former military station near Sarajevo, however the plan has been hampered by local authorities and protesters.[5] Therefore, the Bosnian government has decided to move refugees to another reception centre in Bihać recently renovated with EU funds. Also in this case, no protection action has been accomplished due to imposed obstacles by locals.

Cikotić himself recognised the negative influence of Bosnian political disorder and the cantons lack of solidarity on migrants.[6] He argues that local authorities do not adhere to European and universal values of human rights. He added that there is not any presence of effective mechanisms to overcome resistance for local authorities. Not so long ago, the Serbo-Bosnian leader Milorad Dodik expressed himself against any attempt of refugee intrusion in the territories of Republika Srpska. At the same time, most Croat-Bosniak authorities in the Federation have also decline the receipt of migrants.[7]

Even if Bosnia and Herzegovina is not part of the European Union, it holds a crucial role in the whole region for various reasons. First of all, its location in the Balkan peninsula and its status. Situated right outside the borders of the Union, Bosnia and Herzegovina represents the very first foreign neighbouring stage.  In these terms, it acts as reception basin of the migration flux, thus as a buffer state facing the exterior. Secondly, its ambition as a potential future candidate state: as a matter of fact, this implicates the formation of different levels of interests from both sides. Thirdly, thanks to it role and location, Bosnia and Herzegovina maintain the European connection to the Middle East and Central Asia plugged.

However, even if the importance of the area is undeniable, problems in dealing with this humanitarian crisis are not to abate in the near future. To make things worse, European actors must have foreseen some disadvantaging signals.

Bosnia and Herzegovina comes out from important municipal elections. Even with the difficulties of the pandemic and the lack of resources to guarantee a sufficient level of response, the country has been facing rough times of political disparity due to the incoming elections. Political campaign has prevailed in the national agenda and once again national divisions revealed themselves. In a context of such uncertainty and political disputes, the question of migrants survival has taken a back seat. Some blames the insufficient financial support bestowed by the European Union in comparison with funds allocated by Turkey. However, the main problem lays on intent divisions: on one side there is an entity trying to guarantee its own security, on the other there is a country floundering into its own intolerance.


[1] Marina Strauss, Refugees stuck in hopeless situation at EU border in Bosnia, DW, 10 January 2021, available at: https://www.dw.com/en/refugees-stuck-in-hopeless-situation-at-eu-border-in-bosnia/a-56184682

[2] Euronews, Bosnia migrants: Hundreds have to return to fire-hit Lipa camp near Croatia Border, 30December 2020, available at: https://www.euronews.com/2020/12/30/bosnia-migrants-hundreds-have-to-return-to-fire-hit-lipa-camp-near-croatia-border

[3] Darko Janjevic, DW, Bosnia: Evacuation of squalid Lipa migrant camp in doubt, 29 december 2020, available at: https://www.dw.com/en/bosnia-evacuation-of-squalid-lipa-migrant-camp-in-doubt/a-56089163

[4] UN News, Twitter, 29 December 2020, available at: https://twitter.com/UN_News_Centre/status/1343693211890413568

[5] Il Post, La situazione nel campo migranti di Lipa sta peggiorando, 18 January 2021, available at: https://www.ilpost.it/2021/01/18/bosnia-campo-migranti-lipa/

[6] Elian Peltier, The New York Times, Many Migrants Still Stranded in Bosnia as Freezing Cold Sets In, 14 Januaey 2021, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/14/world/europe/bosnia-migrants.html

[7] Migrants: Bosnia, EU diplomats visit Lipa camp, ANSA, 14 January 2021, available at: http://www.ansamed.info/ansamed/en/news/sections/politics/2021/01/14/migrants-bosnia-eu-diplomats-visit-lipa-camp_9836b7de-9fa8-4f37-b815-e7c0b6ab1f3d.html

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