"Catastrophic" Situation on Bosnian Border - IOM Representative

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The number of refugees and migrants arriving in Bosnia continues to increase and the situation is critical, especially in the north-western part of the country. IOM representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Peter Van der Auweraert, describes the main challenges and what he hopes will be a short-term solution to get migrants away from dire living conditions in the field in an interview with InfoMigrants

How many migrants are currently here in northwestern Bosnia and what are the biggest challenges the migrants are facing? What challenges are you as the UN Migration Agency IOM facing?

Peter Van der Auweraert: Currently, our estimate is that there are about 3,000-3,500 people in Una-Sana Canton. Everyone is trying to go to Croatia but people do spend some time here in this canton. The exact number is difficult to say because people are arriving every day. But we also have irregular border crossings into Croatia every day. There is not sufficient official accommodation in Una-Sana Canton, which means that people are not registered in particular places where we could monitor when people come and go.

The biggest challenge remains official accommodation.

This former hotel, the Sedra hotel, is an excellent solution for families. It will go up to the capacity of 400 individuals. Currently, we have 150 individuals, all families with children which were selected on vulnerability criteria. Some people from Bihac from the dormitory and some from Velika Kladusa from the field.

But it remains as urgent as it was a month or two ago to also find accommodation solutions for the other people who will not be able to be accommodated here [in such hotels]. We currently have close to 1,000 people living in a student dormitory which is clearly too many for the capacity of the building, at least in the shape that the building is in now. We have people in the field in Kladusa, so accommodation remains the biggest challenge.

Because of the lack of official accommodation, protection and safety become a concern. People are vulnerable, whether it's fights among migrants as we have seen last week in Velika Kladusa, or people being approached by smugglers and traffickers that may not have the best intentions and try to defraud people of their money. We also have vulnerable young men that are exposed to drug gangs that try to sell them drugs or try to recruit them to sell drugs. All these issues you could get under control if you have proper accommodation.

Finally, I think for the local population, specifically in Velika Kladusa and Bihac who has reacted really well to the difficult situation, it would get a lot easier if you could get migrants away from the city center, away from the parks, and into official accommodation.  

There are many reports by migrants about violence by the Croation police, of violent push-backs at the border with Croatia but also Slovenia. Can you confirm this and what is IOM's position?

I cannot confirm whether these stories are true. The only thing that I can confirm is that there are a lot of migrants that tell those stories. IOM workers in the field also hear those stories. But I have no independent means to verify whether they are correct or not.

I also know that there is violence among migrants. When migrants have injuries, it's sometimes difficult to establish without proper investigation where those injuries occurred, but I can confirm that we hear those stories as well.

Our official position is very clear: every state has the right to control its own border, with respect for European human rights law, with respect for international law in the sense of the right to access to asylum. It is clear that under no circumstances, people have the right to use violence, even if people try to cross the border irregularly. They can be stopped – states have the sovereign right to decide whether to accept people on their territory or not. Asking to apply for asylum is a different issue, but violence can never be the answer to people crossing the border irregularly. 

The situation in Velika Kladusa is currently probably the worst in the country. Does the IOM have any plan for it?

Clearly, the situation is unsustainable. People cannot stay in that field, no matter how much money is invested there. It gets inundated when it rains, the little river that flows there is very polluted. The site is not sustainable and it was never intended to be. We are working together with local authorities in Velika Kladusa and the Ministry of Security to find a short-term solution to move those people to another location. One of the locations that have been mentioned is Agrokomerc, which could be an alternative for the short term. It is a lot better than the field. So hopefully next week we will have a solution, at least for the short term, so we can move people away from the field.

The situation, as it is, is a human catastrophe – there is no question about it and I think we should be very clear about that it's a human catastrophe. In the field, there are health issues, security concerns, protection concerns, with everything I mentioned. Right now we are prioritizing families from the field to come here to the hotel.  Actually, what we have seen at times, is that some families refuse to move even if they are in the field. They want to stay close to the border with Croatia because they have arranged for some smuggler to take them across the border.

So if there are migrants watching this, I highly recommend families and children to get out of there. We have accommodation and there is a process that you could register for. Unfortunately, we have seen that despite the best efforts done by the UNHCR to talk to the migrants, they have refused to come here.