Reopening of Lipa Camp – Continuation of EU’s Externalisation

Make-shift shelters by People on the Move (PoM) in ruins of Lipa Camp after the fire. Source: Anonymous PoM

Last Friday, 19th of November 2021, a ceremony for reopening the burned-down Lipa Camp in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) was held. For months it has been rescheduled over and over again due to unfinished construction works, though the connection to the electricity grid hasn’t been accomplished until now. With high-rank officials and ministers, such as Johann Sattler (Head of the EU Delegation and EU Special Representative in BiH), Mustafa Ružnić (Prime Minister of Una-Sana Canton), Selmo Cikotić (Minister of Security of BiH) and many others, the ceremony started yesterday morning, including a visiting tour through the new camp, which is now divided into three sections: One for families, another for unaccompanied minors and a third one for single men. In total 1,500 people are supposed to find shelter in the new camp, but these promises are already a failure in itself and give no reason to celebrate. These so-called “Temporary Reception Centres” serve only for gaining control over large numbers of People on the Move (PoM) and preventing them from approaching the European Union (EU). This goes hand in hand with the EU’s politics and practise of border surveillance and violence, and externalization of its borders. With the granted assistance package of €25 million from 16.12.2020, the EU provided €85.5 million to Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2018 for the purpose of so-called migration management, which is an euphemism for deportation and detention – all payed by tax money from European citizens.

To understand why it’s been rebuild after the fire on December 23 2020, we have to look back on the events around Lipa Camp. In the first quarter of 2020 the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was contracted and funded by the EU to set up a camp in Lipa, as local authorities in the city of Bihać and in Una-Sana Canton decided to close the inner-city Bira Camp on September 30 2020. About 1,000 people who had been living in Bira (opened in October 2018) were to be removed from the cityscape and instead moved some 25 km away from any infrastructure in a remote and inhospitable mountainous area. Officially, the camp was supposed to serve only as a provisional solution – but all too often, these false promises turn into ever lasting isolation centres and prisons of the EU that have existed for years. From September 2020 on, Lipa Camp had taken in about 2,000 people, which had led to an enormous overcrowding and even more unbearable conditions, since according to official information it was designed for about 1,200 people. Thus, most had to share a bed and a blanket in pairs, in large ‘marquees’ tents that had no heating or hot water. As the days got colder and colder, the conditions in the camp became even more inhumane, and local organizations and activists have always called for closure of Lipa Camp and for better housing for all People on the Move in Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, in addition to the conditions described above and the constant wind and fog that envelops Lipa, the macabre decision to build a camp at this location only comes to a head when one looks at red signs with skulls that can be seen around. These warn of the several land mines left over from the 90’s wars.

Despite all the adversities, the camp continued to exist, even though the IOM repeatedly announced its closure in order to put pressure on local decision-makers to reopen Bira Camp in Bihać. In this back and forth, the people in the camp were used like pawns without being able to offer any real alternatives. In the end, the IOM announced to close the camp on December 23 2020, reasoning the closure as a consequence of “warnings that it would close a migrant camp, saying Bosnian authorities had ignored its repeated appeals to help supply basic services”, leaving 1,500 people without any shelter in the winter. Even before the closure and the fire, hundreds of people from Lipa had made their way to Bihać in order to find a more self-determined living and/or to make another attempt to breach the walls of Fortress Europe within the next few days and dare the weeks-long march to Italy. However, even an attempt to reach the city of Bihać was tried to be blocked by Bosnian police and special forces, which is why most people had to walk through the surrounding forests.

Having already travelled tens of thousands of kilometres to reach Europe, one of the most difficult and violent regions of all exists here in the Bosnian-Croatian border region. The experiences that people have to go through when they are discovered by Croatian police officers during the attempt to reach the EU represent the entire spectrum of inhuman sadism. In the very most cases all telephones get taken or destroyed in order to inflict monetary and logistical damages, as well as to prevent any evidence of the subsequent procedures: stripping and burning of clothes and food, being smeared with one’s own food, orgies of beatings, torture, burnings, in some cases sexual humiliation and rape… Which resulted in several deaths, as evidenced by the European Court’s for Human Rights ruling in a case of a 6-year old girl. The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) has been documenting the violent experiences of the People on the Move for years, both to record them and to confront those politically responsible for them, as well as to give people an opportunity to bear witness to their experiences. On December 18 2020 BVMN published ‘The Black Book of Pushbacks’, in which over 12,000 documented cases of illegal pushbacks at European borders are recorded and described. A copy of the book was also given to the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson (‘The Black Book of Pushbacks‘ is freely available to download).

A Cascade of Catastrophes Unfolds

While on 23rd of December 2020 the people in Lipa Camp were brought out of the camp to close it for the time being and make it ‘winterproof’, one of the two generators in the camp caught fire and almost the entire camp has burned in the flames – fortunately there was no one left in the camp itself, which is why there were no fatalities. So far it is not confirmed what exactly caused the fire, however, both local media, as well as German media such as Tagesschau and Zeit pounce on the found food that the people in the camp themselves had set the fire – without even waiting for an official assessment and fire expert opinion on the alleged cause. Other sources, however, assume the involvement of IOM staff in the fire. But even if People on the Move had set fire to the evacuated camp, who could blame one for drawing a line under these inhumane conditions people are repetitively forced to live in?

Burning of Lipa Camp. Source: Anonymous PoM

But now the time had come, after the camp had been cleared and burned down, the organizations previously working in and running the camp – the operator IOM and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) (the latter were responsible for the medical care) – withdrew from Lipa and did not undertake any care for the people, but left the people on their own – cut off from any infrastructure and access to resources necessary for survival, on a mountain plain in winter. But even without the fire the people would have just been left there outside without any further steps from IOM. That very night, most people from Lipa attempted to make their way to Bihać, partly to find shelter in the surrounding forest in the outskirts of the city or in old abandoned houses. However, they were prevented from doing so by several hundred police officers and forced back to the mountains of Lipa. Supporting organizations and activists were denied access to the people crammed into Lipa, only the Bosnian Red Cross was given permission to bring ‘food’ to the people, which consisted of only half a liter of water, a few slices of toast bread and 2 small cans of canned meat and fish per person per day. Despite even this did not reach all the people, but only those who tried to find shelter within the camp ruins – partly through own constructions from the remains of the camp, in leftover toilet containers, as well as six to seven hundred people in the two remaining mass tents. Still trying to surveil and keep control over the situation, the police was also present throughout the night, harassing people. In addition, there was a notorious shortage of blankets and sleeping bags, and temperatures had meanwhile reached sub-zero. But hundreds of people had to seek shelter outside the camp, both in old hunters’ huts and under tarps or in the open air in the forest – and were excluded from the Red Cross food distributions.

Make-shift shelters by People on the Move in Lipa Camp after the fire. Source: Anonymous PoM

While it took a week for solidarity organizations and activist groups to receive permission to provide more extensive and nutritious food distribution for the people in Lipa on Deccember 29, it was only possible to distribute with an official permission together with the Red Cross. The final evacuation of the people was announced by the IOM around noon that day and they were brought into almost 30 coaches. Here it should be mentioned that in the days after the fire, there were already several coaches that went from the former camp to Sarajevo, but for a price of 25 to 30€ per person. The fact that even from people in the greatest emergency situation, without access to any resources, profit is still made, is another disgusting facet of the whole debacle.
That same evening solidarity organizations received messages from people on the buses, telling they were still standing in front of the Lipa camp, surrounded by police officers. Neither knowing where the buses would take them, nor when the buses would leave, the only thing they were told was “to a safe camp”. In the morning hours, other people also reported that they were not allowed to leave the buses, not even to go to the toilet, and that the police sometimes tried to stop people from filming and taking pictures. It turned out that the coaches should go to Bradina to accommodate the people in former military barracks. Bradina is a village of about 1,000 inhabitants 45km away from Sarajevo, where already 200-300 local residents were demonstrating against the announced camp and arrival of the People on the Move. In local media it was partly argued, that having a school and a church right next to the planned shelter would create big fears of locals and cause tensions.

On December 30, after almost 1,000 people had to wait for 30 hours in the buses, devastating news spread that everyone had been driven out of the buses and the coaches were leaving empty. Instead, the people were forced again to seek shelter in the burned ruins of the former camp, which was already in a state of a humanitarian crisis itself. In addition, Bosnian police officers and IOM have demolished many makeshift shelters made of tarps and the camp remnants in the meantime – facing days and nights with even less of the already disastrous roofing and shelter from wind and weather. Not to mention the shattering of the initially given hope of being brought to another place, where for the time being it is no longer just a matter of sheer survival. 

Perspectives from Lipa

In the morning of 1st of January 2021 hundreds of people in the burnt-down Lipa Camp joined together to protest against the disastrous living conditions in which they were forced to struggle for survival. In addition, several hundred of the demonstrating People on the Move had gone on a hunger strike for five days to fight for humane treatment and housing, for opening the borders and international media attention.

Protest and hunger strike by People on the Move in Lipa Camp. Source: Anonymous PoM

Since this catastrophe unfold from December 23 on, several hundred of Bosnian locals were standing in front of the halls of the former Bira Camp in Bihać to demonstrate against its reopening and against the People on the Move. The government of Bosnia-Herzegovina tried to increase the pressure on the city of Bihać to bring the people from Lipa back to Bira, but without success and under massive counter-protest, also from the town’s mayor and the police chief of Bihać. It remained an ugly back and forth between political calculation and contempt for people. Meanwhile supportive organizations and groups continue to be criminalized and prevented from bringing basic supplies as food, sleeping bags, tents or clothes to the People on the Move.
What else must happen to lead to an international outcry and to consequences for those responsible? Instead of thinking about solutions to end the self-created circumstances, the improvised camp at Lipa continued with military tents and people being forced to live there. To enforce that, there’s been ongoing evictions of squatted houses and make-shift camps in the forest around Bihać during the winter of 2021, deporting people to Lipa.

Bosnian military sets up tents in Lipa. Source: Anonymous PoM

To get a better understanding of the situation in Lipa and perspective of someone that used to live in Lipa, we want to share a letter written by Sufyan Ali from February 2021, adressed to the members of the European parliament:

We are refugees. We have no work. We are not allowed to. No dignity here. We need perspectives. With no realistic chance of getting into the EU, in Bosnia we are being stuck at the external borders of the EU. Please do something for refugees in Bosnia. This is our request to European Union! The majority who succeed in crossing the border to Croatia end up ‘pushed back’ into Bosnia and Herzegovina. Especially male migrants they have been beaten by the Croatian police consistently. But also women and minors. With the current system of “border protection” there is no legal way for us to reach Europe. We are forced to try it in an illegal way, so the aim for most migrants is to travel undetected through Croatia and then Slovenia to reach Italy. Italy is the first place where the risk for us for being pushbacked to Bosnia is getting smaller. Me, I live in Lipa Camp in Bosnia. The hardest time at Lipa Camp is when we cook. We cook our own food because the food we can get when we wait in a line we do not like. There is no place for us to cook in this camp. Everyone cooks food in a fire in a nearby forest where there is no roof. And we do all this under the open sky. There is no kitchen facility, and we have to cook every day in the extreme cold. The wood is not dry and it is very difficult to start a fire because it is rainy and snowy season and Lipa is a place where it is very difficult to do all this in winter. We have to handle all this every day. We want to do something better for us, we want to work! Because it is very difficult to make such a living. Another thing when some of the organizations that have came here in the last months and distributed food in Lipa, first of all they take pictures from us. They show on social media that they are helping a lot but the fact is that after 10 or 15 days they give us good food once and show off, but I say spend one night and one day in Lipa camp and see the whole truth.

If I explain about bathrooms: Only a dozen chemical toilets for more than a thousand people. No running water to drink. Often we are short on water. The condition of the bathrooms here is not good. Cleaning is done only after 2 to 3 days. There are only five showers in total, for all these people. Hot water does not come in the showers and it is reported in the news that every facility here has hot water, but it’s all a lie! Another thing is that a meeting was held in the Lipa camp. In this meeting we were told that the people of the Lipa camp [have to] clean the camp area. It was said if you won’t clean then the heaters will be taken from the tent of those who will not clean the camp. They rather tell threats to us or control us, rather than considering us as human beings. We are young, fit men, we can work! Being stuck with nothing to do makes us sick.

About Covid-19: Camp operators swear the Covid doesn’t spread within the camp, but there’s no way to verify or control it. Also other sicknesses as scabies spread throughout all people. The tents we live in are very small. In a small tent we have 30 people which makes it very crowded. At the moment with an epidemic like Covid-19 in the world it is very difficult to live in these tents and if human beings also get this disease here, many lives will be lost. We request to make a checkup system here so that a good Covid-19 test can be done and an isolation system can be made to avoid the problem.

Please, we need a legal possibility to enter the European Union without being stuck or living violence! We need perspectives!”

Continuing the Violence

Throughout the whole year there have been ongoing evictions in the Una-Sana Canton, especially in the areas of Bihać and Velika Kladuša. In Bihać two of the biggest squats have been closed down permanently in May by Bosnian police units, forcing hundreds of people to either be stuck in Lipa or to escape to the forests around Bihać. However, just a week after the newly formed make-shift camps got evicted and destroyed again by the police. As well in Šturlić, which is located close to the border with Croatia, evictions happen regularly and a young woman reported “Police gave us 10 minutes and told us to take everything we had with us. Then they set the remaining things on fire and closed the doors of the houses”, meanwhile threatening people not to take pictures or videos. 

Leftover after evictions of make-shift shelters from People on the Move around Bihać. Source: Anonymous PoM

This new Lipa Camp is only maintaining the EU’s walls-up politics based on violent exclusion and will not bring any change to humans who seek for a safe life in an EU-country. Next to the major financier – the EU – the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief (Techniches Hilfswerk), the Austrian Federal Ministry of Interior, the Austrian Development Agency, the Swiss Government, the Holy See, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Council of Europe Development Bank contributed to the rebuilding process. Instead of investing millions of euros in building camps all around Europe and forcing people to live in inhumane conditions, billions spent on border surveillance technologies and research, Frontex, the so-called Libyan ‘coast guard’, and many other players in order to maintain its cruel border regime and keep away as many People on the Move as possible, the EU should take responsibility for its past and current politics, be held accountable for its human rights violations and create safe passages into the EU.

! Smash Fortress Europe ! Open All Borders ! No One Is Illegal !
– The Border Starts Here –

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