Refugee crisis looms in harsh Bosnian winter | Refugee News

Names marked with an asterisk * have been changed to protect identities.

Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina – A refugee crisis is brewing in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, where hundreds of people struggle in freezing weather conditions, with limited access to safe shelter, basic medicine, heating or electricity. electricity.

On the snow-capped plateau of the village of Lipa, near Bihac, a town on the country’s border with Croatia, temperatures are zero at best and minus eight degrees Celsius (17 degrees Fahrenheit) at worst.

Tired, in pain and suffering from prolonged exposure to the cold, the refugees move slowly through the area. They are wrapped from head to toe in blankets. Hundreds of people suffer from respiratory infections.

On December 23, a fire destroyed the main camp in Lipa. Tents have since been erected by the Bosnian army, but offer limited comfort in the harsh weather conditions.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 900 people live in the region, including people who have settled in the surrounding forests.

On Monday, during a blizzard, asylum seekers Abid, Wasim and Ahmed sat around a fire in a makeshift shelter.

The three left Pakistani-administered Kashmir 10 months ago, crossing first through Iran, then Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and finally landed in Bosnia.

“We left because of the fighting in the border area with India. The situation is extremely volatile there, ”Abid told Al Jazeera.

India and Pakistan have waged two wars in the region, which have been contested by the two neighbors since their independence in 1947.

“The reality in Lipa is very bad. There is no roof over our heads, there is no end to it, ”Abid continued. “The system here is unreliable. There are too many problems. “

“The new tents did not solve what happened last month,” Abid said. “There is no phone to call home, no electricity and no toilet. There is nothing.”

The three are keen to reach Italy, but they have not yet attempted to reach richer European countries, unlike many other refugees here.

They had each paid the smugglers about 7,000 euros ($ 8,500), funds raised through friends, savings and donations from family members.

People wait in line for food in Lipa, Bihac, Bosnia [Elisa Oddone/Al Jazeera]

A short walk away, in another makeshift shelter nearby, Anwar *, 22, said he made four unsuccessful attempts in two years to reach Italy, but Croatian police continue to fire him.

“As soon as the weather improves I will try to cross again. I usually walk alone in the woods and mountains, ”Anwar, a Pakistani, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s dangerous, but I can’t stop now because I’m so close to my goal. I have to tell other people who want to reach Europe not to do it this way. It’s too dangerous. “

He added that the food distribution had improved over the past two days, but its schedule remained unpredictable.

“The distribution starts around 9:30 am to 10 am, sometimes later, sometimes never. Other times, volunteers distribute food twice a day. We stand in line when we are told and see what is there for us. First come, first served. Food ends quickly in Lipa.

According to the International Organization for Migration, there are around 9,000 refugees and migrants in Bosnia in total, including 6,000 in camps around the capital Sarajevo – which is around 40 kilometers from Lipa, and in the northern region. -Where is. Almost 3,000 people remain homeless.

Since Friday, snow and sleet have ravaged the land where the former Lipa refugee camp once stood.

The investigation into last month’s blaze is still ongoing, although police have blamed migrants for the blaze.

Its structure ravaged by fire dominates the landscape.

Despite attempts to improve the site, around 170 people live in the rubble, with shelters made from debris spared from the fire that engulfed four large tents and several other facilities.

Some makeshift shelters were filled with smoke, as people cooked using plastic bottles for fuel.

“In the eyes of some refugees, the old camp still offers more security and warmth than the new tents, also offering a more social and community function,” said Verica Recevic, program manager at the Danish Refugee Council (DRC ). “They can come together, sit and talk. They do not see tents as structures where a regular life can be maintained as they are seen as rooms full of beds and whose structure depends on weather conditions.

Refugees set fires to warm up in Lipa, Bosnia [Elisa Oddone/Al Jazeera]

The Bosnian army has set up 12 new tents. Each can accommodate around 20 people, although COVID-19 regulations limit access to a lower number.

They are equipped with oil heaters, but several refugees told Al Jazeera that they sometimes do not work at night, forcing them to move from tent to tent in search of heat.

The DRC on Monday assessed 400 refugees with health problems in the camp.

“Skin conditions such as scabies and respiratory infections have been found in a third of them,” Recevic told Al Jazeera. “Several migrants suffering from Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease, refused to go to local health reception centers because it would mean leaving their community. They don’t want to be separated in such a difficult situation.

Other aid workers said people could not be treated safely at the site.

European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell held talks with Serbian President of the Bosnian Presidency Milorad Dodik on Monday, urging the Bosnian authorities to improve conditions and open centers across the country.

A section of the fire-damaged structure of the former Lipa emergency camp for refugees and migrants [Elisa Oddone/Al Jazeera]

Marsid Buzur, a government official responsible for the entry and stay of foreigners, told Al Jazeera that there are no plans to move the refugees from Lipa to another location.

But additional military tents would be set up as a temporary solution, to be replaced later by containers, he said.

Lipa will become an “emergency camp” for at least three months, Buzur told Al Jazeera, adding that new facilities will be built whenever weather conditions permit.

Members of the local community, said Buzur, rejected the idea of ​​hosting refugees and migrants in urban centers.

Peter Van der Auweraert, who heads IOM’s operations in Bosnia, told Al Jazeera that while he welcomed the new tents as a positive step, the temporary strategy was not a solution.

A 22-year-old Pakistani man (right) sits with a friend around a fire in a makeshift shelter on the site of the former Lipa camp [Elisa Oddone/Al Jazeera]

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