Refugees on the way to the EU: Corona blinds

Thousands of refugees have been stranded in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Aid workers have left the country because of the Corona crisis. And nobody looks anymore.

The Vucjak dump site in December 2019 shortly before closing | Photo: Ben Owen-Browne
The Vucjak dump site in December 2019 shortly before closing | Photo: Ben Owen-Browne

The men desperately crowd around Zehida Bihorac, asking for food, shoes, warm clothes. The little woman raises her hands defensively and says in English: “I’ll be back, I’ll be back and bring more.” Then she turns and enters an old factory building that rises from a snowy landscape. Tents are lined up tightly between high concrete columns, there are dozens, in between, there are small log fires that people are crowding around. It is a misery camp.

All of this can be seen in a video that Bihorac sends on her cell phone on Thursday evening. Then there are pictures of men showing open wounds and broken fingers at the camera. Their faces are worn out, their eyes desperate. Bihorac says she is facing an illegal refugee camp near Velika Kladusa, a place in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina. She says: “Nobody wants the migrants. This is a disaster and it will escalate. ”

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Your statements cannot be checked, the images cannot be verified. Because of the Corona crisis, the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina has also closed its borders. Anyone wishing to enter the country must quarantine for two weeks. Unlike in Greece, however, there are hardly any foreign journalists on-site, many helpers have already left the country. In the Bosnian region of Una-Sana, just a few kilometers from the Croatian border, around ten thousand refugees have been stranded.

The situation is getting worse every day. Human rights organizations report illegal pushbacks from Croatia and Slovenia, and people from Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece are said to still enter despite the closed borders.

Almost unseen by the world public, a human tragedy happens there. Because with the closed borders there are blind spots on the world map, places where nobody travels to report. It could have a dramatic impact on the people there.

“Germany closes its borders”

A good week ago, German Dirk Planert received a call in the Bosnian city of Bihac that did not let him sleep. A friend is on the phone, he says: “””Germany is closing its border.” At this point the coronavirus is already raging in Europe, the first deaths are reported in Germany, almost all foreign helpers have already left Bosnia-Herzegovina, Planert is one of them Last one.

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The next morning at six o’clock he gets in his car and leaves the country, as he tells it today. “It was a rational decision. My mother is sick, my children live in Germany. If anything happens, I want to be there for them. ”But he also knows that people are left behind who need his help just as urgently.

Planert has a special relationship with the city of Bihac. In the early 1990s, he was one of the few foreigners to experience the siege by Serbian troops for several years. He was given honorary citizenship of the city for his relief effort at the time. When he returned last year and saw the misery of the refugees, he decided to stay again.

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He’d gotten up at dawn almost every day for the past nine months, sending fire letters to politicians, writing Facebook posts and talking to journalists on the phone, then packing his car with supplies and driving out to the Vucjak refugee camp with some helpers. Not only had he saved human lives, but he had also sent out a cry for help.

The dump truck Camo Vucjak

When Suhret Fazlic, the mayor, had a tent camp built on a former dump near the city in June 2019, Planert was one of the first to be there. At the end of a sandy road, surrounded by minefields from the war, he had seen people crouching on the floor with open wounds and warming their hands over small fires.

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According to the Bosnian authorities, around 10,000 refugees are said to have been in the Una-Sana region at the end of 2019, almost 1,000 of whom were housed in the Vucjak dump camp without running water or electricity. At the time, the mayor had said the city would be left alone with the situation. Thanks to Planert’s commitment, media from all over Europe finally reported on the situation in Bihac.

In December of last year, international pressure became so great that the camp was closed, a small victory in the fight against misery. But now Planert is sitting in a hut in a Dortmund forest in a self-quarantine and says: “The return to Germany was emotionally brutal for me, an emergency stop.”

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It is not only foreign helpers who are missing on-site, but there are also no aid deliveries crossing the border. Almost everything is lacking: warm clothing, food, medication. Only a few days ago it had snowed in the Una-Sana region again, the temperatures drop below freezing at night.

Homeopathic cans against needZehida Bihorac is now one of the few local helpers who still care for the stranded people. A 52-year-old woman wearing a blue turban around her head. Bihorac actually works as a secondary school teacher, but for almost three years she has mainly been taking care of the refugees on their way to the EU. According to the United Nations, around 3,000 of them cannot be accommodated in the official camps.

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That is why Bihorac gets into her car every morning and rattles through the illegal camps where the refugees have found refuge: half-ruined factory buildings, abandoned houses. She distributes food packages, shoes and medicine, and homeopathic doses to deal with the need. She says: “Before Corona broke out, the situation here was tense. But now I get ten calls a day asking for help. People are at the limit of their powers. ”

At the beginning of last week, the first person in Bosnia and Herzegovina died of the coronavirus, of all things in the city of Bihac. There are no ventilators there and only a few hospitals, the fear of an uncontrolled outbreak of the disease is great.

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The mayor of Bihac blames the refugees for the spread of the virus. In a press conference, he said: “The problem is that two thousand migrants are walking freely through the city and are not taking the orders seriously.” Since the beginning of the week there has been a strict curfew after 6 p.m. Police and military patrol the streets, the report says Bihac residents.

To help fear

For helpers like Bihorac, this means that she should actually no longer have any contact with the refugees; aid deliveries are prohibited. Nevertheless, she continues, wearing a mask and gloves, always afraid of being caught by the police. She says: “The pressure on us is increasing. Many people are already afraid to help. ”

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On Wednesday evening last week, a man named Basher reported on Facebook. He writes that he is 30 years old from Afghanistan. He lives in the Bira refugee camp, a few kilometers outside the city of Bihac. There is not enough food for all residents, the hygiene situation is bad, there is a lack of soap and shampoo.

They were locked up, the accommodation was only disinfected once a day, and the residents had to wait outside when the temperature was below freezing. These descriptions cannot be substantiated; the International Organization for Migration, which operates the camp, does not comment on the request.

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Refugees report violent police attacks on Facebook. They tell of hostility, even of weapons attacks by the Bosnian population. They send photos of signs that now stick to supermarket entrances: “Immigrants unallowed”, no migrants allowed.

“The EU has failed to deliver on its promises”

It is not only the danger from the deadly virus that tensions the stranded people from Afghanistan, Syria or Iran, it is also the fear that the fear of the Bosnian population might finally turn to anger.

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The Mayor of Bihac posted a video on his Facebook page last week. He wears a face mask and declares seriously that a new camp for the refugees will now be built. He says: “We should close Vucjak under pressure from the EU, but it has failed to deliver on its promises.”

The new location is about 30 kilometers from Bihac, on the edge of the Serbian republic. Serbian politicians then declared that they would not tolerate migrants there. Refugee workers report that there is no flowing water or electricity at this location either. You are afraid of a second Vucjak. With the difference that this time nobody is looking anymore.

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