Bosnian priest appeals for refugees despairing in winter conditions

BONN, Germany (CNS) — The head of Caritas in Bosnia-Herzegovina has urged help for refugees stranded in drastic winter conditions in the Balkan country and accused the European Union of ignoring their plight and seeking to “wash its hands like Pilate.”

“Most people here are hospitable to refugees — only a quarter-century has passed since war ravaged our country, so we know what it’s like to be homeless, hungry and afraid,” said Father Tomo Knezevic, the organization’s Sarajevo-based director. “But there’s also tension, especially in the cities, where migrants are living in parks or ruins, making residents uncomfortable. There’s also some criminal behavior, while populist politicians exploit anxieties to incite a mood against them.”

The priest told Germany’s Catholic news agency, KNA, at least 10,000 mostly Muslim refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia were currently stuck in his country, often sheltering barefoot in unheated tents made of plastic sheets in “misery and disgrace.”

He added that some had failed on 20 or more attempts to cross the EU border into Croatia, while many were now “wet, cold, hungry and dirty” and had despaired of reaching their goal.

European church leaders have repeatedly appealed for better support for refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers attempting to enter the EU via the western Balkans, where frontier crossings were closed and fortified after a mass influx in 2015-2016.

In a Jan. 14 statement, the EU’s Brussels-based governing commission said up to 70,000 refugees and migrants had entered Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2018, adding that humanitarian conditions had been exacerbated by local government restrictions and the closure of reception centers at Bira and Lipa.

It said many migrants, including unaccompanied children, currently lacked “safe and dignified shelter, food, water, sanitation, electricity and heating,” adding that the EU had worked closely with United Nations agencies, humanitarian organizations and the Bosnian authorities to meet basic needs.

However, in his KNA interview, Father Knezevic said Europe had proved “a complete disappointment” for many fleeing war and hardship, while Bosnia-Herzegovina was itself still “badly damaged” and poverty-stricken after a bloody 1992-95 war.

“The EU, especially Germany, sent out a clear welcome signal to refugees, encouraging them to come — yet today people are locked out and sometimes pushed back by force, their fate used as a deterrent,” the Caritas director said.

“Most of Europe’s Caritas associations are unfortunately silent, including the German one, and our telephones are silent, although we urgently need more solidarity to continue our work. The EU should not keep innocently washing its hands on the refugee issue like Pilate — Christians are not allowed to do this.”

In a Feb. 17 report, Caritas said it had received donations from church-run charities in the U.S., Italy, Poland, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland, adding that its four diocesan branches were providing food, shoes, sleeping bags and winter clothing at several camps across Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“But border closures have also restricted the movement and relocation of refugees from one area to another,” the report said.

“The past year will be remembered both for the pandemic and for a migrant humanitarian crisis in countries on the Balkan route, especially Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

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