With thousands of people stranded in subzero temperatures in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and many more forced to endure Winter in flimsy tents in Greece, RESCUE urges leaders to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and put the people caught in limbo at its external borders at the heart of its migration policies.  

In the depths of a harsh Balkan winter, where the average temperature can plummet to -4°C, around 3,100 people in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been forced to fend for themselves; and according to the Danish Refugee Council, in October 8 out of 10 people caught in Una Sana canton, Sarajevo and Tuzla canton had gone for days without food, and conditions since then have steadily worsened. In the aftermath of the fire that destroyed Lipa temporary reception centre, the lack of decisive action by leaders to rehouse its residents there left people with no choice but to find shelter in abandoned squats or in tents on land blanketed with snow. Conditions are so desperate that in 2020 alone, at least 21 refugees and migrants died in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as they attempted the treacherous Balkan Route to Europe.

Since 2020, RESCUE has worked alongside local actors to distribute over 9,000 food packages and over 3,000 hygiene kits to refugees and migrants sleeping rough in the Una-Sana Canton area, as well as ensure the most vulnerable received first aid and psychological support.

Imogen Sudbery, RESCUEs Director for Policy and Advocacy for Europe, said:

“It is unacceptable that thousands remain trapped in such inhumane conditions at Europe’s borders. The government of Bosnia and Herzegovina must provide minimum guarantees under national and international law. RESCUE urges it to take an active role in receiving new arrivals so as to ensure people are treated in a safe, dignified way in line with humanitarian standards.

“As an aspiring EU Member State, Bosnia and Herzegovina should uphold the Union’s fundamental values of respect for human dignity and human rights, equality and the rule of law. 

“However, the horrifying situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is also testimony to the deep flaws at the heart of the EU’s migration system. It is a result of policies which prioritise preventing people from reaching Europe, rather than ensuring their safety, dignity and wellbeing. 

“Thousands of people caught in limbo at the EU’s external borders are facing another harsh winter without adequate shelter or access to the most basic needs. Whether in Bosnia and Herzegovina or trapped on the Greek islands, the EU’s political decisions and policy gaps are pushing people to the brink.

“In both instances it is clear that, as well as addressing immediate emergency needs, the EU must urgently shift its approach towards forging long-term solutions. The EU and its Member States must swiftly introduce a robust, independent border monitoring mechanism to investigate allegations of violent pushbacks. They must work towards expanding existing and opening more safe, legal pathways for people to seek protection in Europe. They must end the cruelty of containment, and finally agree on a humane system for responsibility-sharing and solidarity to relocate new arrivals from frontline Member States.

“The upcoming negotiations on the Pact on Migration and Asylum are the perfect opportunity for the EU to lead by example – scrapping the most harmful elements of its current system, and replacing these with humane and sustainable alternatives. If it fails, thousands of people seeking asylum will continue to face needless suffering in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and beyond.”

RESCUE began responding to the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina in February 2020, against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. Working alongside local partners, RESCUE provided food and emergency supplies to migrants sleeping rough and ensured that vulnerable people received first aid, psychological support and information on specialised services.