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Bihac and Velika Kladusa: the “Balkan route” ends here. Overcrowding of migrants, mounting tension

One hundred arrivals a day - after months-long walks and dangers - from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iran, internal Africa. If the Mediterranean is "closed off", they try to reach Western Europe through Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia. But the Croatian border is sealed, and those attempting to cross it are faced by soldiers and more violence. While the temporary reception centres in the Balkan country lack services and all forms of basic necessities, Caritas reaches out to refugees

The situations of migrants following the “Balkan route” remains cumbersome: thousands of people, from the Near East, Asia and even Africa, are stranded in Bosnia and Herzegovina waiting to continue their journey to inland Europe, experiencing dramatic living conditions. Bosnia-Herzegovina – struggling to manage the increased inflow of refugees – is the last leg of their journey before reaching the EU. An overview of the situation with Caritas delegates Daniele Bombardi and Msgr. Miljenko Anicic.

The goal is to cross the border. “One thing is certain, the number of migrants has grown considerably since last year, with around 100 arrivals a day, while refugees throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina are estimated at 8-10 thousand”, remarked Daniele Bombardi, coordinator of Caritas Italy in the Balkans. Making estimates is very complicated because the registration system runs at irregular intervals. “However, compared to 2018, arrivals are twice as high. People enter from Serbia and Montenegro and most of them, adults and children, manage to enter Croatia after dozens of attempts and then move on towards the desired goal: the countries of Western Europe.” “They are Afghans, Pakistanis, Iranians, Iraqis, but also several Central Africans have been arriving since the blockade of ships in the Mediterranean”, Bombardi said. The area surrounding the Croatian border, Bihac and Velika Kladusa, used to be the most dangerous zone, but now the district of Tuzla,  a transit zone near the border and on the route to Sarajevo, is also under migratory pressure.

Overcrowded refugee camps and lack of services. There are several migrant reception centres throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina and five in the Bihac area alone, but all of them are overcrowded and services are lacking. “The latest news is that the Bira camp, one of the largest, hosting two thousand people, will be relocated away from the city, to Vucjak, closer to the border with Croatia”, remarked Msgr. Miljenko Anicic, Director of Caritas Banja Luka, at the forefront in providing assistance to refugees. “Over the past days – he added – authorities have started transferring people, but no infrastructure has been set up in the reception centre until now.”

Government in difficulty. One and a half years after the major inflow of migrants to Bosnia and Herzegovina public authorities are still struggling. “There is no institution specifically tasked with the management of migration – Bombardi pointed out –; reception centres are currently run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) together with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but they can do nothing without the collaboration of local Canton authorities.” Msgr. Anicic pointed out that

“The tensions amongst migrants living in the reception facilities caused by bad living conditions escalates into clashes and hostility on the part of the local population.”

A concrete case was the accidental fire in the Miral centre of Velika Kladusas at the beginning of June, “caused by a forgotten stove, resulting in 30 people being burnt and a whole floor destroyed by the fire.” “These are people with a traumatic past, who travelled a long way and are now experiencing major difficulties”, explained the coordinator of Caritas Italy. In his opinion, “the poor conditions of the Centres spark off tensions not only amid the migrant population but also amongst the local inhabitants, and accidents like the fire could happen again.”

Caritas on the front line. In this difficult situation the local Caritas has been on the forefront of providing assistance since the beginning. “Caritas is entrusted with the handling of all matters related to migrants by the Bishops’ Conference of Bosnia-Herzegovina,” said Daniele Bombardi. For now, two types of services are offered (in the photos): sanitation and socialization services.

“In the Bira migrant centre, in Bihac, marked by poor hygiene conditions, we set up a laundry for clothes, sheets and blankets”, also “to reduce the risk of infections and illnesses.”

The second project is a social café, created together with IPSIA (an NGO linked to the Acli) where migrants can find a place for refreshment and discussion with Caritas workers and volunteers. “We distribute clothes, blankets, hygiene products and food as needed”, Bombardi said. He clarified that in Bosnia-Herzegovina the problem of inclusion is not related to school integration or job placement since “90% are migrants in transit.” Crossing the border, however, is not an easy task: “some people have attempted 10-15 times, the Croatian police wait for them and forcefully send them back, beaten, mistreated and robbed. “Single men are more likely to pass, but it is extremely difficult for families with children. However, nobody plans to give up, they all travelled a long way to get here. The problem of violent rejections has been condemned in the reports of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.

“Closing the ports doesn’t help.” Bombardi expressed his special gratitude to the Caritas network and the various European Bishops’ Conferences that strongly support local projects, also since the Catholic Church in Bosnia-Herzegovina “has very limited resources.” He firmly believes that the problem of migration “should be managed differently”, on a global level, “because closing seas and routes leads to nothing being resolved, people move to another place, as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and this makes the situation more complicated and more dangerous.”

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