For all the deficiencies, the establishment of IOM-operated temporary camps providing basic shelter and care for refugees and migrants had possibly prevented a far worse situation from developing had the crisis management been left solely to the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country has been ill-prepared to deal with the considerable, though not entirely unforeseeable, the challenge of providing reception for a large number of people transiting through its territory, Amnesty International says in a report.
In May, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights criticized the authorities for failing to provide a systematic response to the humanitarian crisis.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has only one official reception center for asylum-seekers near Sarajevo, in Delijaš, which is operated by Ministry of Security, and with the capacity to accommodate a mere 150 people.138 In the absence of adequate facilities or a meaningful support system, refugees and migrants who entered the country from Serbia routinely travelled to Bihać and Velika Kladuša, to be closer to the Croatian border. During the peak of the crisis in summer, the two small towns were receiving between 300 and 400 arrivals per day; mostly people traveling on regular train and bus lines from Sarajevo. But as Croatia increasingly tightened the border and started forcibly expelling refugees and migrants found on their territory to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the numbers of people stranded in the canton started swelling, the local authorities became overwhelmed.
“We simply lack capacity and resource to deal with the crisis alone,” Una-Sana Police Commissioner told Amnesty International. “And we feel completely abandoned by the state authorities. There is no strategy to deal with the crisis at the national level.“
Indeed, the Ministry of Security of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has competence over matters of asylum and migration, has failed to actively engage or meaningfully support the local authorities. In part, the country’s complex and dysfunctional constitutional structure often obfuscates actual competencies and creates situations where multiple administrative levels and institutions are unclear as to who is responsible over any given issue. A meaningful agreement about how to respond and assist the growing number of refugees and migrants in the country was even more difficult to achieve in 2018, an election year, when for the better part of the year, the governments at all levels have prioritized campaigning over governance.
The increased presence of refugees and migrants only exacerbated the tensions between the local authorities and national government and left the people stranded in Una-Sana Canton to haphazard efforts of local community and international organizations.
The lack of clear institutional responsibility for managing the growing humanitarian crisis raises serious concerns; not only do temporary, and often opaque, informal arrangements between the authorities and one such incident was recorded by a resident and shared with NGO community.
In addition to the asylum center Delijaš, the national authorities also operate a refugee center Salakovac, managed by the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, with the capacity to accommodate 250 people. However, this center is designated for people who have already obtained a refugee status.
The dispute over institutional responsibility escalated in February 2019, when the authorities in Bihać demanded that Ministry of Security takes over the management of the temporary accommodation centers in Bihać and Velika Kladuša and, failing this, threatened to disband the camps and bus 4,000 people accommodated there back to Sarajevo.
The dispute is still ongoing, however, the crisis suggests that the conditions for refugees and migrants currently accommodated in the reception centres in Bihać and Velika Kladuša are not about to improve and that, in fact, their already volatile position in Bosnia and Herzegovina could become even more precarious.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has responsibility to provide the minimum guarantees, including ensuring the right to housing and emergency shelter to refugees and migrants, including those who are in the country irregularly. Under the European Social Charter, all foreign nationals, regardless whether they are in country lawfully or not, are entitled to adequate housing, as well as urgent medical care and basic social assistance.
The Bosnian authorities at all levels are aware that, as the snow melts and temperatures rise, so will the number of people trying to enter the EU through the country. Yet, there is little hope that Bosnia and Herzegovina will be any better prepared to cope with the inevitable increase. While the European Commission committed to providing additional assistance for management of migration, most of which is earmarked for humanitarian assistance to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the continued collective expulsions and pushbacks from EU borders threaten to turn Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country that is still reeling from a devastating conflict of the 1990s, into a new crisis point at the doorstep of Europe.