NEAR BIHAC, Bosnia (Reuters) - Hundreds of migrants from the Middle East and Asia living in a freezing camp in the forests of Bosnia are short of food and bedding and at growing risk as the bitter Balkan winter approaches, aid workers say.
Bosnia has faced an upsurge in migrant numbers since Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia closed their borders against undocumented immigration.
In June, authorities in the northwest Bosnian town of Bihac moved migrants who were sleeping rough there to an tent settlement at Vucjak, a former landfill site 8 km (5 miles) from the Croatian border.
Aid agencies have urged the authorities to close Vucjak and find better accommodation for the migrants as the weather gets colder.
“Otherwise it’s very clear what’s going to happen. If people stay there for the winter, people will die ... in a couple of days or in a few weeks’ time because the temperatures are going down very rapidly,” said Peter Van der Auweraert, the Western Balkans Coordinator for the International Organisation for Migration.
The site lacks running water and electricity. The nearby woods are littered with landmines left over from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
On a rainy late-October day, with the temperature close to zero, police officers restrained migrants quarrelling over the small amounts of food provided by the local Red Cross.
Some, wearing flip-flops in the mud, washed by pouring cold water over themselves from plastic containers. Many inmates were not dressed warmly enough for the cold weather.
Several men lit a fire and cooked a meal with the Red Cross rations. Others slaughtered a sheep, hoping for a more substantial lunch.
“I saw houses in Slovenia and Croatia for animals that are better than this camp,” said Mohammed Idriz Neeaziv from Afghanistan. “This is not a camp. This is not for humans.”
The migrants have all tried repeatedly to cross into Croatia, but have been turned back at the border. Many say police beat them and smash their mobile phones, accusations that Croatia has denied.
Hamza from Pakistan said he had just been returned to the camp by police after being prevented from entering Croatia. He said he was now worried that the weather would get worse and snow would stop him from trying to cross again.
More than 40,000 migrants have entered Bosnia since 2018. Nearly one fifth are children. Many manage somehow to make it into Western Europe.
Bosnian authorities have not been able to decide on where to house the migrants that are stuck in their country. The government says it has offered alternative accommodation but regional authorities have not agreed.
On the top of the crisis at the Vucjak camp, officials in Bihac have threatened to close down the Bira migrant centre, which is located at an old factory in the town, in about two weeks.
Van der Auweraert said closing the Bira centre would be a “disastrous decision” that would add 1,300 people to the 2,000-2,500 who are currently not in safe accommodation in this corner of Bosnia.
“I do hope that reason will prevail in the end and that authorities will allow Bira to continue at least for the winter because we have no alternatives at the moment,” he said, blaming political leaders for poor handling of the crisis.
“We have about 7,000 migrants in the country, that should not to be a problem to deal with for a country of 3.5 million people,” Van der Auweraert told Reuters TV.
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Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Giles Elgood