Conditions Improving in Lipa Migrant Camp
Deep in the snow in Bosnia’s Lipa migrant camp, hundreds of refugees huddle in wind-blown tents without food, water or heat. A fire outbreak destroyed the refugee camp in December 2020. The 1,700 inhabitants of the camp evacuated but, with nowhere else to go, 900 migrants returned to the remnants of the camp where they are now living in tents along steep wintery slopes.

Migrants Face Struggles

Many of the migrants in Lipa are coming from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. Since the European Union shut its doors to new members in 2015, the migrants’ goal was to reach Croatia, which many see as a “gateway to the E[.]U.” According to The International Organization for Migration (IOM), 8,500 migrants are currently living in Bosnia with hopes of someday getting farther into Northern Europe.

The United Nations explains that thousands of migrants who have spent innumerable weeks outside in negative temperatures are in desperate need of viable shelters. Many migrants, according to The New York Times, live in tattered tents, have exhorted to washing themselves with snow and stand in line barefoot for food and supplies.

In October 2020, authorities in Bihać, Bosnia, closed its migrant reception center, the biggest in the area. Those living there underwent relocation to the Lipa, Bosnia, camp 75 kilometers away. Bosnia’s central government then ordered local enforcement to reopen the reception center in Bihać, Bosnia, but the local enforcement refused. Therefore, approximately 2,500 people currently live on the outskirts, suffering exposure to the elements.

Migrants’ Struggles Amid COVID-19

Due to the threat of the novel coronavirus, the IOM quickly established the camp in Lipa, Bosnia, in summer 2020 when the country had to close its borders.  Even before the fire, the camp did not prepare itself for winter. Migrants would usually have received thermal floor mats, insulation for shelters and tents, new blankets, stoves and fuel. But now, lacking amenities such as power, water, winter clothes and tents, the camp was virtually unsustainable.

On December 11, 2020, the IOM stopped funding the migrant camp due to the failure of authorities to make conditions sustainable through winter. Aid agencies left later that month. As of January 6, 2021, 700 people remained in the camp, finding shelter in abandoned shipping containers and the devastated remnants of tents. Bihać, Bosnia’s mayor apparently agreed to reopen the Bihać Reception Center and even sent buses to relocate the migrants. However, the buses left Lipa, Bosnia, completely empty. Migrants experienced outrage at the heating and sanitation conditions and went on a hunger strike to protest the issues.

Raising the Alarm

The approaching threat of harsh winter brought to light the migrants’ predicament. The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic raised alarm over the growing danger in December 2020. Conditions seem to be looking up for refugees in both Lipa and Bihać, Bosnia. Peter Van der Auweraert, chief of mission in Bosnia for the IOM, says that aid groups distributed winter sleeping bags, apparel and food. The army has begun to bring in heated tents for migrants living in the Lipa migrant camp in Bosnia in what Van der Auweraert calls an “important step forward.”

The Danish Refugee Council

The Danish Refugee Council has provided protection, shelter, food security, community infrastructure as well as water, sanitation and hygiene supplies. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, currently, 82 staff members from the Danish Refugee Council are caring for a total of 8,500 displaced peoples. Working alongside the Red Cross and the IOM, the Danish Refugee Council had distributed food, winter clothes, sleeping bags and hygiene kits to more than 1,500 displaced peoples. The Bosnian local officials agreed to relocate migrants from the Bosnian Lipa migrant camp to the reception center in Bihać, Bosnia, while reparations to the Lipa Emergency Reception Centre are taking place. The center will also have water and electrical services ready for occupants come April 2021.

Mijatovic continues to advocate for better conditions for migrants in Bosnia, including rapid procedures for asylum-seekers, ending the anti-migrant rhetoric of Bosnia, as well as better care for the approximately 500 unescorted migrant children. Currently, the European Union has provided Bosnia with €60 million, approximately $70 million, for emergency funding, including migrant centers. This response to the crisis is not uncommon. According to Nicola Bay, the country director for the Danish Refugee Council, “Every year we have this winter crisis and an emergency response is crafted at the last minute.”

Looking Forward

For the future, refugees hope that conditions will continue to improve, with further services and supplies going to those living in dangerous conditions. The Danish Refugee Council is focusing its efforts on improving human health and emergency response in regards to the migrant crisis. The organization is also currently working on improving the availability of primary healthcare services in reception facilities, providing mental and psychosocial support for refugees and documenting human rights violations experienced at the Bosnia-Croatia border. The humanitarian group supplied the migrants with doctors beginning in January 2021 when the migrants at the Lipa camp in Bosnia underwent screening for respiratory and skin infections, as well as other health conditions.

The Danish Refugee Council Secretary-General Charlotte Slente believes that the fault lies in the inherently flawed immigration policy of the European Union: “We believe it is necessary for the European Commission to move beyond the current crisis mode approach to migration and ensuring that there is sufficient long-term and predictable financial support made available, in this case to Bosnia and Herzegovina, to ensure that a dignified reception capacity can be put in place.” Hopefully, with the reopening of the Lipa Emergency Reception Centre in Spring 2021, those from the migrant camp currently bracing the cold will have shelter and safety.

– Nina Eddinger
Photo: U.S. National Archives