Camp Lipa is located about 30 km away from Bihać on the border of the neighboring canton, Republica Srpska. It is located in the mountains, next to an old chapel and a dried up water source, and reminds of a military base because of its remote location and icy wind. Those who do not voluntarily find their way up here on foot may also be involuntarily driven in a black van with barred windows. This sometimes happens when the Special Police make their rounds through Bihać to “clean up” the town. In the woods immediately surrounding Camp Lipa, about 300 other people live in coexistence under plastic sheets.
Yesterday we had the opportunity to visit Camp Lipa. The place has become a political issue of the so-called migration management in Bosnia in the last weeks. The IOM (International Organization for Migration), as the operator of the camp, has issued an ultimatum and announced that it will dissolve the camp if no solution to the long-standing grievances in Lipa is found on Wednesday.
Since this announcement, rumors, speculations, fears are getting rampant among protection seekers, in the local population and in the alternative support scene of Una Sana. Possible scenarios are being thought through and speculations are being made. Ultimately, there will probably only be more precise information when the decisions of IOM and the local government are actually executed. There is talk that some of the people from Lipa will be brought from the border region to Sarajevo and Tuzla in buses. In order to be prepared for such a scenario, concerned NGO workers are currently traveling across the country to the border, hoping to gather more information. They would need to prepare for such an operation in order to pick up what the camps in the target regions cannot provide. However, there is no confirmed information.
Another worst-case scenario would be that Lipa closes and the approximately 1,300 residents are released into homelessness because of the inability of those in charge to develop alternative care strategies.
One look at the face of the head of SoS Bihać is enough to imagine what this scenario would mean. Apart from the Red Cross and IOM, he is the only one who has received permission to distribute at least sleeping bags and similar goods of minimal care to the people seeking protection before they set off towards the EU again in desperation after leaving the camp. Such border migration is actually already too dangerous because of frost and low temperatures.
Some of the camp residents voluntarily walked here, the rest were transported to the camp in black vans with barred windows.
Thousands are already living in the forests and ruins of Una Sana. In the Bosnian winter, temperatures drop well below freezing, so if Camp Lipa is closed without a plan, an additional 1,300 people face death from cold and lack of supplies.
Why is IOM taking this step and what are its demands?
To understand why a camp management threatens to shut down in the middle of winter and risks leaving its residents to die in the snow, one must first realize that Lipa is not actually a camp.
Lipa is a makeshift camp that was created in the summer as an emergency solution. In the midst of a pandemic, a place with more space outside Bihać was to be built at short notice.
Surrounded by barbed wire fencing, a few marquees from Switzerland stand next to office containers and a generator park. These blow vast amounts of exhaust gases into the air every day to provide makeshift warmth for the huge tents. There is a food tent and some sleeping tents in which 300 men sleep on 800 square meters each. Sleeping in Lipa is mostly done during the day, because it is too cold at night. In the evenings, Bollywood movies are shown in the dining tent, otherwise they try to keep their bodies moving to not get chilled. There are 60 showers for 1,300 people, only 15 of which work. The water from the taps is ice cold.
Funding for this makeshift project ran out in November, and while more money was promised to install power and water lines and to pave the sloping mud paths, this promise remained unfulfilled after more and more deadlines passed. Without the construction of solid paths, the trails become too muddy when it rains and icey when it freezes, making the terrain difficult to walk on.
In addition, the tents would need to be replaced with at least 300 heated containers for the camp to survive the winter.
In four parliamentary meetings in mid-December, this problem was discussed with different solutions. Finally, it was announced that Lipa should be closed and the residents moved to Camp Bira, in order to move to Lipa again in the spring. However, the fact that the mayor of Bihać had won the local election a few weeks earlier, with the promise to close the unloved Camp Bira in the middle of the city, seems to speak against this discussed promise to improve the Camps living situation. After the decision became known, he declared that he would ignore the decision from Sarajevo, as it was just another trick by the government. The latter would receive funds from the EU for the operation of the camps, but would leave the canton alone in the actual implementation of the task.
Due to its geographical location, the Bosnian border canton of Una Sana is a point of contact for a large number of people of different origins. Many of them try to enter the EU via the “Balkan route” on the border with Croatia in order to seek protection here.
In order to prevent these people from entering European territory in the first place, the EU has been investing millions annually in the so-called “protection” of its borders since the beginning of this development. In the summer of 2020, protection seekers and members of the press reported systematic push-backs and a spiral of violence. This took a sad climax in October 2020 with reports of sexualized violence and torture-like scenes investigated by the Guardian.
Una Sana is involuntarily becoming a host to those seeking protection through European border policies that view camps as a solution. The IOM is one of the most important partners in this, along with the Bosnian government, in so-called migration management. It operates two camps in Una Sana on behalf of the EU, the use of which is reserved for families, minors and minorities. Cedra and Borici together have a capacity for about 800 people and are located in and around Bihać. As far as can be judged, these shelters meet basic humanitarian standards. Here, small organizations are enabled to offer children’s activities and language courses, for example.
Extremely controversial, however, are the camps that are intended to house only males. In both relevant towns on the Bosnian-Croatian border, Bihać and Velika Kladuša, such a camp has been established. Velika Kladuša is home to the Miral camp, which currently holds about 1,000 residents. It is under constant threat of closure due to protests by the population as a pawn of right-wing populist local politics. Camp Bira in Bihać has a capacity for about 2,000 people, is located in the middle of the city and has now become another symbol of the political power struggle between the EU, the IOM, the government in Sarajevo and the local government in Bihać.
The EU has paid for the establishment of humanitarian camps and wants the Bosnian government and IOM, as recipients, to fulfill their mandate. The IOM is demanding that the government in Sarajevo forward the promised funds for the reconstruction of the camps it runs and is now increasing the pressure by threatening to close Lipa. Sarajevo claims that with Bira there is a new camp that meets EU standards, so there is no need for further payments to the IOM. According to the government, a lot of money was invested in this camp before the local government closed it in the fall. In doing so, the local government again gave in to pressure from the population, on whose back Europe’s problems have been played out for years.
In conclusion, the circumstances in Bihać and Velika Kladuša show once again that the camp policy that the EU continues to pursue at its external borders in no way helps to overcome the challenges. On the contrary, by submitting to right-wing demands of closure, short-term interests are being pursued that ultimately massively increase the suffering of those affected, whether among those seeking protection or among the local population. The EU must stop closing its eyes to this suffering and change its inhumane policies.
Una Sana is not a warehouse, evacuate now!