With increasing numbers of transiting irregular migrants and persons seeking asylum, complicated by COVID-19-related challenges, IOM seeks to continue to support the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to effectively manage a functioning migrant reception system that is in line with international standards, adheres to best practice health practices in the case of COVID-19 mitigation, and provides living conditions at an acceptable standard, where dignity is maintained and basic needs are met. IOM is further committed to crisis recovery and crisis prevention related to the potential deterioration of social cohesion of host communities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as by rising levels of xenophobia, and violent extremist narratives.
Mixed Migration Flows in BiH
Overview of Migration Trends
Since 2019 Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) authorities registered 44,249 migrant arrivals. In 2020, authorities registered 15,053 new migrant arrivals as of 15 November 2020 in addition to the 29,196 migrant arrivals registered in 2019. The composition of the migration flows is mixed, with the top declared countries of origin being Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Syria. While the vast majority are single men, they are also comprised of families with children, unaccompanied and separated migrant children, and other vulnerable migrants.
While the number may seem modest in comparison to the overall flows along the Western Balkan route, especially in 2015 and 2016, IOM estimates that there are around 9,000-10,000 migrants in the country at any given time. Migrants are predominantly concentrated in close proximity to the border with EU Member State Croatia, in Una Sana canton or in Sarajevo canton with smaller numbers of migrants located in Tuzla and Mostar canton. Currently, IOM's centres can officially accommodate 4,800 migrants with an additional 4,000-5,300 migrants estimated to be living rough, predominantly in border areas. The closure of the Lipa centre by the order of the government has left over 1,000 people without secure accommodation, potentially increasing the number of those living rough. The number of targeted migrants reflects a combination of the ongoing needs of migrants already in Bosnia and Herzegovina, expected arrivals in 2021, and assistance provided under social cohesion oriented crisis prevention.
Migration Management Response
Thus far, the BiH authorities have struggled to adequately respond to the basic needs and human rights of migrants in the country. The situation, requiring a multi-level and multi-sectoral approach, has exposed the country's complex governance system.
In response, in support of BiH authorities, IOM has scaled up its operations across the country and has six active temporary reception centres, providing safe, secure and dignified accommodation that is in line with COVID-19 mitigation measures, food and other necessities, and where migrants have access to a range of health and protection services.
However, with the current official accommodation capacity at approximately 4,800 at the IOM managed reception centres, severely reduced after the closure of the Lipa centre, there are an additional estimated 3,000-5,300 migrants and asylum seekers living in precarious conditions, including informal tent settings and abandoned facilities. There is a pressing need to enhance accommodation and reception capacities.
The COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of the migrants in BiH who are particularly affected due to poor access to health services and limited access to proper sanitation, hygiene facilities and personal protective equipment. Migrants are further affected by the health/safety impact on the IOM operational migrant response, especially in relation to the management of temporary reception centres in accordance with COVID-19 mitigation measures, and other activities impacted by the COVID-19 related restrictions. In particular, the increasing demand for accommodation at these centres has been complicated by the necessity to ensure compliance with COVID-19 mitigation and prevention measures such as maintaining physical distancing and ensuring space for quarantine; all amidst concern over the health implications of the rising levels of overcrowding in the centres.
With the closure of the BiraTemporary Reception Centre (TRC), there is an additional urgent need to identify and find new COVID-19 compliant accommodation. The current mixed migration flow to BiH is larger than in recent times, and the continued presence of migrants and asylum seekers, combined with the growing use of nationalist and divisive rhetoric used both by both politicians and the media, could further exacerbate the potential for instability and fragility in the post-war country. Furthermore, the reception of migrants and asylum seekers have disproportionally been affecting communities in Una Sana Canton who have voiced concerns of constrained resources and insufficient support from the State.
In addition, given the overcrowded conditions, and therefore increased risk of transmission, migrants and refugees should have access to the COVID-19 vaccine once it is available to avoid possible outbreaks in the facilities. As part of ensuring access, migrants and refugees should be factored into and covered by the COVID-19 national vaccination plans of BiH.
Host communities and communal tensions
Twenty-five years after the end of the war, BiH continues to face major challenges, including socioeconomic gridlock, corruption within a wide range of sectors, unresolved war-legacies, and youth disenfranchisement, which have created a conducive ground for the proliferation of violent extremist influences. Efforts to deepen or exploit communal tensions have had a direct influence on communities across BiH, and should be considered in the context of the relatively high number of BiH citizens, proportionate to its population, that left the country to participate in foreign conflicts.
In seeking to prevent relapse into conflict or violence, IOM works in over 20 local communities across the country, empowering young people to become agents of positive change and supporting grass-root initiatives and youth networks to strengthen the resilience of local communities. Further work remains necessary, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has placed additional strains on the host communities, with evident psychosocial strain, social alienation leading to increased vulnerability to online manipulation (social engineering) by violent extremist groups, and the rise of xenophobia.
Host communities of migrant and refugee reception centres have been increasingly falling prey to xenophobic narratives, fueled by a lack of sense of control over political and migration management decisions in their communities and socio-economic issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a deterioration of social cohesion in these communities and a potential for the deterioration of relations between host and migrant communities.