This blog post was published under the 2015 to 2024 Conservative government

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Matt Field

British Diplomat

Part of UK in Bosnia and Herzegovina

29th March 2019

You are not alone

A family dancing as they celebrate Nowruz in a temporary accommodation facilities for migrant families in Bihac
Nowruz celebration in a temporary accommodation facilities for migrant families in Bihac

Last week I visited Una-Sana Canton, to see first-hand some of the UK’s support work for local communities there. By chance, this coincided with the festival of Nowruz, so during my visit to one of the temporary accommodation facilities for migrant families, I was able to join their colourful, musical Persian New Year celebrations.

In my meetings with local leaders, including the cantonal Prime Minister and several mayors, I understood what a challenging time this has been for Una-Sana. By an accident of geography, and decisions made far away, they found themselves dealing with large volumes of transitory migrants, including unaccompanied minors and parents with children, attempting to move on to countries inside the European Union.

Facing hundreds of people, many of them sleeping rough in parks or the football stadium, the overwhelming response from local people was one of generosity and compassion – perhaps because some of them had experienced leaving their own homes under trying circumstances. Donations were brought in of food, blankets, and other practical support. Local services did their best to cope, but were in many cases severely stretched. And the increasingly cold temperatures added to the urgency.

The Prime Minister of Una-Sana, who took office only in October, described to me the ‘crash course’ in migration he had undergone during those six months. As in many places, the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) was one of the first to respond, helping to coordinate existing and new offers of support. Working alongside the local authorities, they focused on securing safe accommodation for migrants, moving them out of parks and tents and into adapted public buildings. I saw for myself that thanks to the hard work of many, all migrants were being accommodated in safe and clean buildings, with access to social services, including education.

British Ambassador with PM of Una Sana Canton and IOM staff at one of the camps for migrant families in Bihac.
With PM of Una Sana Canton and IOM staff at one of the camps for migrant families in Bihac.

While much larger actors were planning longer-term support, particularly the EU which last year the allocated €9.2 million to BiH and has already committed €13 million for this year to cover the provision of food, clothing, blankets, hygiene items, health services, protection and emergency shelter, the UK put £565,000 (KM 1.2 million) into projects supported by local citizens, who bore much of the burden of the migration situation. With this money we were able to clean up the park, including some damaged memorial plaques, fix public lighting, provide new sanitation equipment, repair the stadium, and support smaller projects to build community ties through music and culture.

One highlight of the visit was seeing children from migrant families joining football practice at the NK Jedinstvo ground, using the global language of sport to interact with locals. Another highlight was having young people from Cazin, funded through another UK project, present their social projects through the medium of a film quiz – they had read in my CV I loved movies, and wanted to test me out.

But I also saw that interventions and projects like the UK’s are only a partial fix at best. People in Una-Sana felt they had been left almost entirely on their own to deal with a problem that was only passing through the canton – and welcomed our projects as a ‘sign that we are not alone’. What they really needed was a far stronger support from the rest of BiH, from the state and entity governments, to meet the many demands their face, from money to staffing.

I came away with a powerful sense of this message from locals – we cannot deal with these problems on our own – all the more so as the number of migrants increases with the warmer weather. The good people of Una-Sana are already doing their best. We all, but especially the other authorities across BiH, should do all we can to help.