Migrants Stranded in Bosnia-Herzegovina "Animals Have It Better Than Us"

With the EU having long since blocked off the Balkan Route, more and more migrants have become stranded in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Some have little choice but to camp out in the forest, where they are exposed to freezing cold and heavy snow.
By Maximilian Popp and Andy Spyra (Photos), in Bihać
Refugees in the destroyed Lipa camp

Refugees in the destroyed Lipa camp

Foto: Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL

Nasim Hussein has tried to enter the European Union 13 times. Each time, he says, he has been stopped by Croatian security forces, beaten and then dragged back across the border to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Currently, he is living in a forest near the border and wondering how he will survive the winter.

The son of a farmer from near Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, the 21-year-old and a dozen other migrants have built a tent camp using branches and plastic tarps to shelter themselves from the rain and snow. They have covered the muddy ground with wooden palettes that they found in the garbage in Bihać, the city not far away.

No Water and No Electricity

The men are crouched around a fire. Despite the below freezing temperatures, most are only wearing a sweater and some have nothing but sandals on their feet.

They are shivering and Hussein rubs his hands together. His eyes are red. He didn't sleep, he says, out of fear that he would freeze to death in his thin sleeping bag. Still, he went down to the river in the morning to wash himself. In their improvised camp, they have no water and no electricity. Every now and then, aid groups drop off some food, but often, the migrants have only dry bread to eat for days on end. "We are starving. We are freezing," says Hussein. "Animals have it better than us."


A Fight for Survivial

Foto: Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL

A slight, unshaven man with short hair, Hussein says he left Pakistan after a neighbor threatened to kill him. He made his way through Turkey and Greece, all the way to Bosnia-Herzegovina – where he has now been stuck for over a year, like so many other asylum-seekers.

Early on in the EU refugee crisis, in 2015, refugees were able to travel via Serbia and Hungary into central and northern Europe. But ever since the EU closed down the so-called Balkan Route, more and more people have found themselves stranded in Bosnia-Herzegovina, unable to cross the border into Croatia – and blocked from continuing onward to countries further north, like Germany or Sweden.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 03/2021 (January 16, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that almost 10,000 migrants are currently stuck in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with just a fraction of them having found a spot in one of the country's six official camps. Many people sleep in the ruins of factories or in abandoned houses.

The day before Christmas, the situation for the migrants got even worse, with the Lipa camp near the border city of Bihać burning down. Around 1,500 migrants, all of them men, were living in the camp. Most of them are now trying to survive in the surrounding forest.

"Entirely Avoidable Tragedy"

So far, neither the government in Sarajevo nor the European Union has managed to provide the migrants with appropriate shelter. Bosnia-Herzegovina plans to rebuild the burned-down tent camp with the help of the military, but it won't be finished at least until spring. Meanwhile, like Moria  before it, Lipa has become yet another symbol of Europe's complete failure on asylum policy.

Nasim Hussein had been living in Lipa before the fire. He says the conditions in the camp were intolerable. Lipa is located in the mountains above Bihać, with residents being exposed to the wind and cold. The walk into the city of Bihać takes several hours.

The IOM, which operated the Lipa camp, had been telling Bosnian officials since late last summer that it wasn't ready for winter: The tents couldn't be heated and weren't strong enough to withstand the snow. The government promised to resettle the refugees in a former refrigerator factory in Bihać, a place that the IOM had once before used as a shelter. But when local politicians and neighbors protested, the government in Sarajevo buckled. In response, the IOM withdrew from Lipa on Dec. 21.

It is unclear whether the fire at Lipa was an accident or arson, and if it was arson, who might be responsible. Public prosecutors are still investigating. Either way, hundreds of people have been left without a place to live – in the middle of a cold winter with heavy snowfall.

Migrants in Bosnia-Herzegovina are fighting the extreme cold.

Migrants in Bosnia-Herzegovina are fighting the extreme cold.

Foto: Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL

Initially, the IOM tried to evacuate the residents, with the buses standing ready shortly before New Year's. The plan was to take the migrants to a camp in a neighboring district, but again, protests broke out – and again, Sarajevo put a stop to the relocation. The people spent a night in the buses before they were then driven back to Lipa. Peter Van der Auweraert, head of the IOC in Bosnia-Herzegovina, calls it "an entirely avoidable tragedy."

In Germany, too, the federal government is constantly at loggerheads with the states regarding the distribution and housing of new arrivals. But the political situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina makes the issue particularly complex.

Impotent Government

The country was at war until the mid-1990s, with the Dayton Agreement providing a fragile peace since 1995. Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country of 3.5 million hardly larger than the German state of Lower Saxony, is essentially divided into two main parts: the federation of Croatian and Bosnian cantons, and the Srpska Republic, which is primarily populated by Serbs. Then there is the Brčko district, which is largely autonomous. The possibilities available to the central government in Sarajevo are often limited.

Many people in Bosnia-Herzegovina feel that the EU has left them in the lurch. Since 2018, Brussels has provided the country with around 89 million euros to help manage the influx of refugees, but as in Greece, it looks as though only a fraction of that amount has actually improved conditions for the migrants themselves. Instead, the money has likely gone to border protection measures, disappeared on its way through the administration or has not been disbursed due to political standoffs. But the vast majority of migrants don't want to stay in Bosnia-Herzegovina, hoping instead to continue their journeys into the EU. Croatian security personnel frequently use violence to prevent them from crossing the border.

Many migrants have gotten stuck at the border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.

Many migrants have gotten stuck at the border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.

Foto: Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL

Nasim Hussein says he has repeatedly been abused by Croatian border guards. Men in balaclavas, he says, have forced him to strip naked, before they then beat him with branches. One time, he made it all the way to Zagreb, he says, before the police brought him back to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

NGOs and the UN Refugee Agency have documented these illegal pushbacks on several occasions. The migrants are also thought to have been tortured with electric shocks. The Croatian government has denied the allegations, saying they have merely been invented by the migrants, while criticism of Zagreb from the EU has been tepid at best. Indeed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has explicitly praised the Croatian government for its handling of the migrants. Brussels and Berlin are eager to have EU border states keep the refugees out – and the rest of Europe apparently doesn't much care how that is done.

Help from Private Citizens

Zlatan Kovačević does what he can to help the migrants.

Zlatan Kovačević does what he can to help the migrants.

Foto: Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL

It is mostly private citizens who are now providing for the migrants stranded on Europe's external border – people like Zlatan Kovačević. The 43-year-old grew up in Bihać and was struck by a shell during the Bosnian war, resulting in the loss of a leg. Together with his family, Kovačević fled to Ludwigsburg in Germany before moving back to Bosnia-Herzegovina in the late 1990s. He opened up an arcade and a paintball facility, but he also runs SOS Bihać, an aid organization for the disabled, the homeless and, increasingly in the last several years, migrants.

He was shaped, Kovačević says, by his own experience with war and can't turn away when he sees people suffering. Kovačević has mobilized a number of volunteers, including a policeman, who lost his job following a car accident, and an orphan. Kovačević says he has come to understand that societal outcasts tend to be more willing to help others.

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