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Refugee crisis looms in harsh Bosnian winter

Refugee crisis looms in harsh Bosnian winter

 A refugee crisis is brewing in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, where hundreds of people are struggling in freezing weather conditions, with little access to safe shelter, basic medicines, heat or electricity.

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

Fatigued, 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 been erected by the Bosnian army since then, but they provide limited comfort due to harsh weather conditions.

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

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

All three left Pakistani-administered Kashmir 10 months ago, first crossing into Iran, then Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and finally landing in Bosnia.

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

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over the region, which has been fought over by the two neighbors since their independence in 1947.

“The reality in Lipa is very bad. There is no roof over our heads, this has no end, ”Abid continued. “The system here is not reliable. There are too many problems. "

"The new tents have not resolved what happened last month," said Abid. “There is no phone to call home, no electricity, no bathrooms. There is nothing."

The three men want to get to Italy, but have not yet tried to reach the richest European countries, unlike many other refugees here.

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

A few steps away, at another makeshift shelter nearby, 22-year-old Anwar * said that he has made four failed attempts in two years to reach Italy, but the Croatian police continue to return him.

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

“It's dangerous, but I can't stop now because I've been so close to reaching my goal. I must tell other people who want to get to Europe, not to do it this way. This is too dangerous. "

He added that food distribution had improved in recent days, but that his timing remained unpredictable.

“Distribution starts around 9:30 to 10 in the morning, sometimes later, sometimes never. Other times, volunteers distribute food twice a day. We line up when they tell us and see what's in it for us. First come, first served. Food runs out quickly at Lipa. "

According to the International Organization for Migration, there are approximately 9,000 refugees and migrants in Bosnia in total, some 6,000 in camps around the capital Sarajevo, which is about 40 kilometers from Lipa and in the northwest region. Almost 3,000 remain without accommodation.

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

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

Its fire-ravaged structure dominates the landscape.

Despite attempts to improve the site, some 170 people live among the rubble, with shelters made of rubble that were saved from the fire that engulfed four large tents and various 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, and it also provides a more social and community function,” said Verica Recevic, program director at the Danish Refugee Council (RDC). . “They can meet, sit and talk. They do not see the tents as structures where a normal life can be maintained because they are seen as places full of beds and whose structure depends on the weather conditions. "

The Bosnian army installed 12 new tents. Each can house about 20 people, although COVID-19 regulations restrict access to a smaller number.

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

The Democratic Republic of the Congo assessed 400 refugees with ill health in the camp on Monday.

"Skin conditions such as scabies and respiratory infections were found in a third of them," Recevic told Al Jazeera. “Several migrants with Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel condition, have refused to visit local health reception centers because it would mean leaving their community. They don't want to be separated in the middle of such a difficult situation. "

Other humanitarian workers have said that people cannot be safely treated at the site.

European Union Foreign Affairs Chief Josep Borrell made a call with Bosnian Serbian President Milorad Dodik on Monday, urging Bosnian authorities to improve conditions and open centers across the country.

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

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

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

Members of the local community, Buzur said, have 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.

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