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Bosnia Moving To Avert Migrant 'Crisis' As Cold Weather Sets In

A migrant man holds a child standing in front of a Bosnian police cordon at the border crossing in Maljevac on October 26.
A migrant man holds a child standing in front of a Bosnian police cordon at the border crossing in Maljevac on October 26.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is moving to prevent what the UN has warned could become a "humanitarian crisis" for thousands of migrants who, with temperatures dropping, have been living outdoors as they cross the country in hopes of reaching the European Union.

Bosnian police said on October 30 that they had bused dozens of migrants who were camping near the border with EU-member Croatia to a new migrant center in northwestern Bosnia.

The impoverished Balkan state this year became a main stop on a new route to the EU for migrants trying to escape war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

Bosnian authorities say some 20,000 people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries have traveled through the mountainous Balkan state this year. Most are headed for Croatia and camping out in northwestern Bosnia near the Croatian border.

But Bosnia has its own economic and political problems, and many Bosnians have not been eager to host the transient visitors.

The EU has provided some aid to cope with the migrant influx, but Bosnia has been slow to open reception centers.

Last week, with cold weather setting in, authorities unveiled two new facilities, one in the northwest and the other near Sarajevo. Together, they doubled the number of available beds for migrants to around 1,700.

That still leaves more than 1,000 other migrants in vulnerable conditions outdoors that the UN refugee agency has warned could turn into a "humanitarian tragedy" when winter arrives.

Hundreds of migrants have been living under tarpaulins, in tents, and inside deserted homes and abandoned buildings near Bihac, a city in the northwest that has became a base for attempts to cross into Croatia.

The makeshift camps do not have toilets or showers, but aid groups and local people have been providing the travelers with some meals.

"We are very lucky that the weather has been mild so far," said Peter Van Der Auweraert from the International Organization for Migration.

He said aid organizations had a goal of providing temporary housing for around 3,700 people who are "in transit" in Bosnia.

Many of the migrants have been travelling for years and are eager to reach the EU.

Mohsin, a 27-year-old from Pakistan, told AFP he was planning to leave Bihac soon in the hope of reaching Italy before winter.

"I tried three times, but had bad luck. I was caught twice in Croatia and once, the last time, in Slovenia, after seven days of walking," he said.

Migrants call their attempts to cross into the EU "The Game."

While most manage to continue north, some have been thwarted by border police, who are stepping up patrols.

Doctors Without Borders has reported numerous accounts of police abuse, saying officers stole migrants' phones and money and beat them with tree branches.

Mobile phones are a lifeline for migrants, allowing them to keep in touch with relatives. Bosnian police say they also have been sending relatives the coordinates of their route for others who may follow.

Looming winter weather spurred several hundred migrants to march to the Croatian border last week, where they skirmished with police obstructing their path.

The group, which includes families with young children, has been sleeping in tents on the roadside for several days, huddling around camp fires as overnight temperatures typically sink to around five degrees Celsius.

Up to 200 migrants have been arriving daily in the Bihac area in recent weeks, with tensions rising as some local people came out to protest the influx.

Police announced last week that they would no longer allow migrants into that northwest zone, sending at least 700 south back to Sarajevo in recent days.

The decision was made because of the "deteriorating security situation," Snezana Galic, a spokeswoman for the regional police, told AFP.

With reporting by AP and AFP
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