Migrants sleeping rough after fire destroys camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Migrants are living without sufficient shelter after a fire destroyed the Lipa migrant camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina on December 23, 2020.
Migrants are living without sufficient shelter after a fire destroyed the Lipa migrant camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina on December 23, 2020. © Alba Dominguez / NKK / social media
Text by: Poline Tchoubar
6 min

Fire engulfed the Lipa migrant camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina on December 23. Since then, nearly a thousand migrants have been living amid the debris without electricity, running water, or heat, and as an icy winter closes in. Local authorities blocked an attempted evacuation on December 30. After nearly 30 hours spent crammed on buses, the migrants were finally returned to the camp but are still waiting for a solution. 

Advertising

A number of videos showing the fire that raged through the Lipa migrant camp, located near the Croatian border in the town of Bihać, were posted on social media on December 23. 

This video, which was posted on TikTok on December 23, shows tents in Lipa going up in flames.  

The fire began while an evacuation of the Lipa camp was underway. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which runs the camp, closed it after making several fruitless appeals to local authorities about the poor camp conditions. Lipa camp was opened in April 2019 as a temporary response to the Covid-19 pandemic. With no running water or electricity, it was never meant to house migrants over the winter, said the IOM and other organisations in a joint statement published on December 30.  

'I don’t have any more money, I don’t have anything, just a blanket to sleep on'

Faizan, age 22, is originally from Kunduz, Afghanistan. He has been in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the past year and a half. He’d like to enter the European Union and go live in France.  

On the morning of December 23, the people at the IOM came to tell us to gather our belongings and get ready to leave because the camp was about to close down definitively. We gathered outside because they were handing out bags of food. I was in line when I realised the camp was on fire. 

Our Observer Faizan used his cellphone to film the Lipa Camp in flames. He sent us these images. 

Since the fire, camp residents have been left to fend for themselves. Some tried to get to the nearby town of Bihać, but police stopped them. 

Nearly a thousand people are now living crammed in the one remaining tent or in the forest nearby, though temperatures at night often plunge below freezing. 

Faizan continues:

It’s really hard to live here. We don’t have anywhere to sleep. We don’t have electricity. Right now, I am sleeping in what were once the camp bathrooms. 

There are more than 1,000 people living here. We get food once a day. Sometimes, they hand out blankets but there are just too many of us, so there are never enough. I don’t have any more money, I have nothing, only a blanket to sleep on. I don’t know what to do. We don’t have any choice. 

On December 30, a number of buses were chartered to evacuate Lipa camp. The Bosnian Minister of Security, Selmo Cikotić, said camp residents were supposed to be transported to an old military base in Bradina, located about 50 miles from Sarajevo. Finally, after a disagreement with local authorities, the buses left empty. 

Faizan remembers the incident:

A week later, they told us to get into buses because we were going to be transferred to another location. We stayed in the bus next to the camp for more than 30 hours. Police were stationed both in front of and behind us. We couldn’t get out, except to use the toilet. We were forced to stay seated in the bus. Then, the police came and told us to get out. We asked why but they just repeated that we should get off the bus. So we went back to the camp.

Faizan sent our team this video showing the buses meant to evacuate camp residents. 

Peter Van der Auweraert, the IOM representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, took to Twitter to post photos taken inside the buses where camp residents were forced to spend the night while waiting to be evacuated. 

Camp residents have been protesting for several days, asking to be transferred to a camp with better conditions. Some went on a hunger strike on January 1, refusing the food handed out by different groups on the ground. 

Faizan took part in a protest on January 2:

I hope to have a better place to sleep. I also hope that they will open the border. I had already tried to cross over three times before the fire but the Croatian police arrested us each time. They beat up refugees. 

This video, shared by Faizan, shows residents of the Lipa camp protesting for better living conditions.  

 >> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Croatian police accused of spray-painting migrants’ heads in latest episode of border violence

 

'It wasn’t a camp before the fire and it still isn’t one'

The Council of Ministers, the executive branch of the Bosnian government, authorised plans to build a new shelter for migrants in Lipa, with enough portables to house up to 1,500 people. However, construction will take several more months.

On January 2, ambassadors from the European Union, Austria, Germany and Italy met with the Bosnian Minister of Security in an attempt to convince Bosnian authorities to act quickly to deal with this situation. The next day, the European Commission announced that that they would release 3.5 million euros to aid refugees in Bosnia-Herzegovina, imploring the Bosnian authorities not to “leave people out in the cold.”

Military tents were installed in Lipa on January 2, pending the construction of the new camp. But some migrants refused to use them. Camp conditions remain difficult, says Mite Cikovski, who is the IOM director in the neighbouring Miral Camp:

The army just set up 30 tents, but there is still no heating, no running water and no plumbing. There isn’t a camp doctor. Fifteen residents had to be transferred to the Miral Camp for medical care. 

The Red Cross brings in food and the IOM supplies blankets and clothing but it isn’t enough. 

Petar Rodansic, a member of SOS Balkan route, denounces what he says is an infringement of human rights:

What is happening in Lipa is a disaster. It wasn’t a camp before the fire and it still isn’t one. It’s a series of human rights violations. Not to mention the Croatian border police who are illegally deterring migrants, preventing them from their right to apply for asylum.

Alba Dominguez has been volunteering with the migrant relief organisation No Name Kitchen for the past two months. She is angry about the restrictions that the government has imposed on organisations:

It’s really hard to help because we don’t have the right to enter the camp. In this canton, only the large humanitarian organisations have the right to help migrants. We partnered with the Red Cross to hand out food but it isn’t enough.