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'Please help us': Migrants, exposed to freezing Bosnia winter, await chance to reach EU

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Hundreds of migrants are taking shelter in abandoned buildings in and around the northwestern Bosnian town of Bihac, wrapping up as best they can against the snow and freezing weather and hoping eventually to reach EU member Croatia across the border, writes .
Bosnia has since early 2018 become part of a transit route for thousands of migrants from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa aiming to reach Europe’s wealthier countries.

But it has become increasingly difficult to cross EU borders and impoverished Bosnia has become a cul de sac with its ethnically divided government unable to cope, leaving hundreds of people without proper shelter.

Ali, 16, from Afghanistan, has been sleeping in an abandoned bus for almost six months after he left a Bihac camp.

“I’m in really a bad way, there’s no one to look after us here and the conditions are not safe here,” Ali told Reuters.

“People who are supposed to support us have been coming and taking things from us and then selling those things inside the camp or in other places. We have nothing here ...Please help us.”

There are about 8,000 migrants in Bosnia, some 6,500 in camps around the capital Sarajevo and in the northwestern corner of the country bordering Croatia.

On Monday (11 January), EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell talked by phone with Bosnia’s presidency Serb chairman Milorad Dodik, urging Bosnian authorities to improve dire humanitarian conditions of migrants and open centres more evenly distributed across the whole country.

The Serb and Croat-dominated parts of Bosnia refuse to accommodate any migrants, most of whom come from Muslim countries.

“Borrell stressed that failing to do so would have severe consequences for the reputation of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” his office said in a statement.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is running the Bosnian camps, said its mobile teams are helping around 1,000 people squatting in houses that were deserted or destroyed during the Bosnian war in the 1990s.

“They don’t have the possibility of regular food distribution,” said IOM camp manager and co-ordinator Natasa Omerovic. “They can’t seek medical assistance.”

Until last week, an additional 900 people were left without shelter after the Lipa summer camp, some 26 km away, was set on fire just as the IOM decided to withdraw because it was not warm enough for winter.

Bosnian authorities, who for months ignored requests from the European Union to find an alternative location, have now provided heated military tents and beds.

On Sunday evening, a group which found shelter in an abandoned house in Bihac, ate a modest dinner cooked under torchlight on an improvised fire. They slept on the dirty concrete floor without water. Some wore only plastic slippers in the snow.

“Too hard life here,” said Shabaz Kan from Afghanistan.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Genocide conviction upheld against former Bosnian Serb military chief Mladic

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United Nations war crimes judges on Tuesday (8 June) upheld a genocide conviction and life sentence against former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, confirming his central role in Europe’s worst atrocities since World War Two, write Anthony Deutsch and Stephanie Van Den Berg.

Mladic, 78, led Bosnian Serb forces during Bosnia's 1992-95 war. He was convicted in 2017 on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes including terrorising the civilian population of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo during a 43-month siege, and the killing of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys taken prisoner in the eastern town of Srebrenica in 1995.

"His name should be consigned to the list of history's most depraved and barbarous figures," chief tribunal prosecutor Serge Brammertz said after the verdict. He urged all officials in the ethnically divided region of former Yugoslavia to condemn the ex-general.

Mladic, who had contested both the guilty verdict and life sentence at his trial, wore a dress shirt and black suit and stood looking at the floor as the appeals judgment was read out in court in The Hague.

The appeals chamber "dismisses Mladic appeal in its entirety..., dismisses the prosecution's appeal in its entirety..., affirms the sentence of life imprisonment imposed on Mladic by the trial chamber," presiding judge Prisca Nyambe said.

The outcome caps 25 years of trials at the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which convicted 90 people. The ICTY is one of the predecessors of the International Criminal Court, the world's first permanent war crimes court, also seated in The Hague.

"I hope that with this Mladic judgment children in (Bosnia's Serb-run entity) Republika Srpska and children in Serbia who are living in lies will read this, " Munira Subasic, whose son and husband were killed by Serb forces that overran Srebrenica, said after the ruling, highlighting Serb genocide denial.

Many Serbs still regard Mladic as a hero, not a criminal.

Post-war Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, now chairing Bosnia's tripartite inter-ethnic presidency, denounced the verdict. "It's clear to us there is an attempt here to create a myth about genocide that never occurred," Dodik said.

'HISTORIC JUDGMENT'

Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic is guided by a French Foreign Legion officer as he arrives at a meeting hosted by French U.N. commander General Philippe Morillon at the airport in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina in March, 1993. Picture taken in March, 1993.  REUTERS/Chris Helgren
Former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic gestures prior to the pronouncement of his appeal judgement at the UN International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) in The Hague, Netherlands June 8, 2021. Peter Dejong/Pool via REUTERS
A Bosnian Muslim woman reacts as she awaits the final verdict of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic in the Srebrenica-Potocari Genocide Memorial Center, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 8, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

In Washington, the White House praised the work of the UN tribunals in bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice.

"This historic judgment shows that those who commit horrific crimes will be held accountable. It also reinforces our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world," it said in a statement.

The appeals judges said Mladic, who after his ICTY indictment was a fugitive for 16 years until his 2011 capture, would remain in custody in The Hague while arrangements were made for his transfer to a state where he will serve his sentence. It is not yet known which country will take him.

Lawyers for Mladic had argued that the former general could not be held responsible for possible crimes committed by his subordinates. They sought an acquittal or a retrial.

Prosecutors had asked the appeals panel to uphold Mladic's conviction and life sentence in full.

They also wanted him to be found guilty of an additional charge of genocide over a campaign of ethnic cleansing - a drive to expel Bosnian Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs in order to carve out a Greater Serbia - in the early years of the war that included brutal detention camps that shocked the world.

That prosecution appeal was also dismissed. The 2017 verdict found that the ethnic cleansing campaign amounted to persecution - a crime against humanity - but not genocide.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday the final Mladic ruling meant the international justice system had held him to account.

"Mladic’s crimes were the abhorrent culmination of hatred stoked for political gain," Bachelet said in a statement.

The lower ICTY court ruled Mladic was part of "a criminal conspiracy" with Bosnian Serb political leaders. It also found he was in "direct contact" with then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 shortly before the verdict in his own ICTY trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Mladic wasjudged to have played a decisive role in some of the most gruesome crimes committed on European soil since the Nazi Holocaust of World War Two.

The tribunal determined that Mladic was pivotal in the Srebrenica slaughter - which occurred in a UN-designated “safe area” for civilians -since he controlled both the military and police units involved.

Joint Statement by the High Representative Josep Borrell and Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi on the sentencing of Ratko Mladic for genocide

The final judgement in the case of Ratko Mladić by the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) brings to an end a key trial in Europe’s recent history for war crimes, including genocide, which took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"Remembering those who lost their lives, our deepest sympathies are with their loved ones and those who survived. This judgement will contribute to the healing for all those who suffered.

"The EU expects all political actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the Western Balkans to demonstrate full cooperation with international tribunals, respect their decisions and acknowledge their independence and impartiality.

"Genocide denial, revisionism and glorification of war criminals contradict the most fundamental European values. Today’s decision is an opportunity for leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region, in view of the facts, to lead the way in honouring victims and promote an environment conducive to reconciliation to overcome the legacies of the war and build lasting peace. 

"This is a prerequisite for the stability and security of the Bosnia and Herzegovina and fundamental for its EU path. It is also amongst the 14 key priorities of the Commission Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU membership application.

"International and domestic courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the neighbouring countries need to continue their mission to provide justice for all victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and their family members. There can be no impunity."

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Bosnia and Herzegovina: EU allocates additional €3.5 million to support vulnerable refugees and migrants

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The European Commission has announced today an additional €3.5 million in humanitarian aid to help vulnerable refugees and migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina facing a humanitarian disaster. More than 1,700 refugees and migrants remain without appropriate shelter and support in Una Sana canton. After the closure of the reception centre in Lipa, which was not winter-proof and which also suffered a fire, 900 people are currently on the former campsite. In addition, a further 800 refugees and migrants are staying outdoors in harsh winter conditions, including children.

High Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell, said: “The situation in Una Sana canton is unacceptable. Winter-proof accommodations are a pre-requisite for humane living conditions, which need to be ensured at all times. Local authorities need to make existing facilities available and provide a temporary solution until Lipa camp is rebuilt into a permanent facility. The EU's humanitarian assistance will provide the people in distress with access to basic items as an immediate alleviation to their current plight. However, long-term solutions are urgently needed. We urge the authorities not to leave people out in the cold, without access to sanitary facilities in the midst of a global pandemic.”

Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič said: "Hundreds of people, including children, are sleeping outside in freezing temperatures in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This humanitarian disaster could be avoided, if the authorities created sufficient winterized shelter capacity in the country, including by making use of existing facilities available. The EU will provide additional emergency assistance including to those sleeping outside by distributing food, blankets, warm clothes and continue to support unaccompanied minors. However, humanitarian assistance would not be required in Bosnia and Herzegovina, if the country implemented appropriate migration management, as requested by the EU for many years.”

The humanitarian funding announced on 3 January will provide refugees and migrants with warm clothing, blankets, food, as well as healthcare, mental health and psychosocial support. It will also contribute to efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus. This funding comes on top of €4.5 million allocated in April 2020, bringing EU humanitarian assistance for refugees and migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina to €13.8m since 2018.

Background

While over 5,400 refugees and migrants are accommodated in EU-funded temporary reception centres in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the current shelter capacity made available in the country is not sufficient.

Despite continued EU engagement with the authorities, they have not agreed to open additional reception facilities and proceeded with the closure of the existing ones, such as the Temporary Reception Centre Bira in Bihać. People continue to sleep in abandoned buildings or makeshift tents, without access to safe and dignified shelter, water and sanitation, electricity and heating, and they only have limited access to food and safe drinking water. Without access to basic services, vulnerable refugees and migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina are exposed to serious protection and health risks, aggravated by the coronavirus. The much needed lifesaving help does not replace longer-term solutions to the current situation.

The EU provides technical and financial support to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the overall migration management, including in relation to the asylum system and reception facilities, as well as strengthening border management. Since early 2018, the EU has provided more than €88m either directly to Bosnia and Herzegovina or through implementing partner organisations to address the immediate needs of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants and to help Bosnia and Herzegovina strengthen its migration management capacities.

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EU humanitarian aid in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Journey to nowhere: Migrants wait in the cold to be bussed from burnt Bosnia camp

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Hundreds of migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East waited in the cold on Tuesday (29 December) to be bussed out of a burned camp about to be dismantled in Western Bosnia, but there was no agreement where they should go, writes Ivana Sekularac.

Fire destroyed the camp in Lipa housing about 1,200 people last week. Police and UN officials have said the blaze was probably started by migrants unhappy at the temporary closure of the camp, scheduled for the same day.

On Tuesday, media quoted Bosnia’s security minister, Selmo Cikotic, as saying that the migrants would be moved to a military barracks in the town of Bradina, 320 km (200 miles) away. Finance Minister Vjekoslav Bevanda disputed that, saying that there had not been any agreement.

Bosnian media showed pictures of buses parked for migrants to board. Residents gathered in Bradina to protest against migrants moving there, the portal klix.ba reported.

About 10,000 migrants are stuck in Bosnia, hoping to reach wealthier countries in the European Union.

The Lipa camp, which was opened last spring as a temporary shelter for the summer months 25 km away from Bihac, was due to shut on Wednesday (30 December) for winter refurbishing.

The central government wanted the migrants to temporarily return to the Bira camp in Bihac, which was shut down in October, but local authorities disagreed saying that other parts of Bosnia should also share the burden of the migrant crisis.

The European Union, which had supported Bosnia with €60 million to manage the crisis and pledged €25m more, has repeatedly asked the authorities to find an alternative to the unsuitable Lipa camp, warning of an unfolding humanitarian crisis.

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