'Please help us': Migrants, exposed to freezing Bosnia winter, await chance to reach EU

by Reuters
Monday, 11 January 2021 21:43 GMT

Migrants carry firewood as hundreds of them are taking shelter in abandoned buildings in the northwestern town of Bihac in Bosnia and Herzegovina, January 11, 2021. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Image Caption and Rights Information

Impoverished Bosnia has become a cul de sac for many migrants hoping to reach western Europe, with hundreds left freezing and struggling to survive

(Adds comment by top EU diplomat)

By Fedja Grulovic

BIHAC, Bosnia, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Hundreds of migrants are taking shelter in abandoned buildings in and around the northwestern Bosnian town of Bihac, wrapping up as best they can against the snow and freezing weather and hoping eventually to reach EU member Croatia across the border.

Bosnia has since early 2018 become part of a transit route for thousands of migrants from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa aiming to reach Europe's wealthier countries.

But it has become increasingly difficult to cross EU borders and impoverished Bosnia has become a cul de sac with its ethnically divided government unable to cope, leaving hundreds of people without proper shelter.

Ali, 16, from Afghanistan, has been sleeping in an abandoned bus for almost six months after he left a Bihac camp.

"I'm in really a bad way, there's no one to look after us here and the conditions are not safe here," Ali told Reuters.

"People who are supposed to support us have been coming and taking things from us and then selling those things inside the camp or in other places. We have nothing here ... Please help us."

There are about 8,000 migrants in Bosnia, some 6,500 in camps around the capital Sarajevo and in the northwestern corner of the country bordering Croatia.

On Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell talked by phone with Bosnia's presidency Serb chairman Milorad Dodik, urging Bosnian authorities to improve dire humanitarian conditions of migrants and open centres more evenly distributed across the whole country.

The Serb and Croat-dominated parts of Bosnia refuse to accommodate any migrants, most of whom come from Muslim countries.

"Borrell stressed that failing to do so would have severe consequences for the reputation of Bosnia and Herzegovina," his office said in a statement.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which is running the Bosnian camps, said its mobile teams are helping around 1,000 people squatting in houses that were deserted or destroyed during the Bosnian war in the 1990s.

"They don't have the possibility of regular food distribution," said IOM camp manager and coordinator Natasa Omerovic. "They can't seek medical assistance."

Until last week, an additional 900 people were left without shelter after the Lipa summer camp, some 26 km away, was set on fire just as the IOM decided to withdraw because it was not warm enough for winter.

Bosnian authorities, who for months ignored requests from the European Union to find an alternative location, have now provided heated military tents and beds.

On Sunday evening, a group which found shelter in an abandoned house in Bihac, ate a modest dinner cooked under torchlight on an improvised fire. They slept on the dirty concrete floor without water. Some wore only plastic slippers in the snow.

"Too hard life here," said Shabaz Kan from Afghanistan. (Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Nick Macfie and Grant McCool)

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