In an abandoned house in the village of Šturlić in the far north-western corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina, four families reside – eight adults and eight children. In early September 2020, they stayed for several days in a field under the open sky. But now they live in the abandoned house where only one room has windows and there is neither electricity nor water. All four families sleep in the same room.

In recent years, Bosnia and Herzegovina has become one of the most significant mixed migration routes for people seeking to enter the EU. Some 65,000 refugees, migrants and asylum seekers have been recorded in the country since the beginning of 2018.

As the winter draws near, the closure of reception facilities in the Una Sana Canton will drastically destabilise the humanitarian situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Nicola Bay, country director, DRC Bosnia and Herzegovina

While existing reception facilities are estimated to accommodate up to 6,500 refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, humanitarian organisations on the ground have mapped some 3,000 persons living outside of reception centres in places like abandoned buildings, tents, and makeshift camps.

Refugees will be at serious risk

The vast majority reside in the Una Sana Canton in the north-western part of the country bordering the EU member state of Croatia, where needs are highest.

Currently, there are 65 families consisting of 245 people including 115 children in inadequate out-of-site locations in the Una Sana Canton. In addition, 30 unaccompanied minors were resent observed as well.

And now the relentless Bosnian winter is approaching.

The humanitarian situation in the country is among other things shaped by a lack of sufficient reception capacity across the country. However, the local governments have recently demanded closure of several reception facilities.

“As the winter draws near, the closure of reception facilities in Bira, Miral and Lipa, all of them in the Una Sana Canton, will drastically destabilise the humanitarian situation in the country and will inevitably put refugees, migrants and asylum seekers residing outside of reception centres at very serious risk,” says Nicola Bay, DRC’s country director in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“In a worst-case scenario, this could lead to some 5,500 refugees, migrants and asylum seekers residing outside of reception centres and in need of food, warm clothes, blankets and medical assistance over the course of the winter months.”

Mapping needs

In a small, abandoned factory building in the village of Polje, 110 people reside under terrible living conditions. The decrepit building in which they live is almost completely devastated and offers no real shelter once the cold winter months set in. They have no access to clean water, and their only medical assistance is provided by DRC and the Red Cross.

Reaching vulnerable people with warm clothes, blankets, food, and health care is of course just an emergency measure. Sustainable solutions including an increase in reception capacity are highly needed.

Nicola Bay, country director, DRC Bosnia and Herzegovina

In September 2020, DRC conducted interviews with 398 people living outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s reception facilities – or more than 10 per cent of the total population – in order to map their needs.

The report found that:

  • about a quarter of them had only eaten once a day or not at all in the days before the interview,
  • half of them did not have access to clean water, and
  • in the country’s Una Sana Canton, 92 per cent reported having experienced health problems such as vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain and loss of appetite.

Sustainable solutions are needed

DRC was present in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 2010 but decided to reopen its office in 2018 when migration flows through Bosnia and Herzegovina started drastically increasing. Among other things, DRC aims to ensure equitable access to health care for refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers in the country, and to provide essential protection and humanitarian assistance to people without access to formal reception facilities.

“One of the main issues for people living outside of reception facilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the lack of access to proper health care – both physical health care and psychosocial support. As the winter is approaching, our outreach response is trying to reach as many people as possible with warm clothes, blankets, food, and health care,” says Nicola Bay.

“But this is of course just an emergency measure. More sustainable solutions including an increase in reception capacity are highly needed.”

In mid-September, DRC provided medical assistance for three of the children living in the abandoned house in Šturlić – one six-year-old and two babies of only six months – all of them with symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting.

DRC outreach teams still visit the families regularly. However, so far it has been impossible to refer them and other 61 families residing outside of official facilities to accommodation in one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s temporary reception centres.