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Bosnia Struggles With Thousands Of Migrants On New Route To Western Europe

A migrant woman with children rests in the park across from city hall in Sarajevo.
A migrant woman with children rests in the park across from city hall in Sarajevo.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is struggling to cope with an influx of thousands of migrants mostly from the Middle East trying to reach Western Europe that authorities and aid groups warn could develop into a crisis.

Bosnia's governing council met on May 15 to consider measures to deal with the thousands of migrants who have turned to the small Balkan country in recent months, trying to avoid more heavily guarded routes and borders in the Balkans.

About 4,000 people from Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Algeria, and Afghanistan have entered Bosnia so far this year compared with 755 in 2017, migrant aid groups say.

Most are seeking to cross the border into EU-member Croatia, and then move on toward Western Europe, but about 1,500 have remained in the country after being blocked from entering the European Union.

The government of Bosnia does not have the facilities to accommodate so many migrants, as its asylum center in Sarajevo has only 200 beds, with 80 to 150 people arriving each day, Security Minister Dragan Mektic said on May 14.

The International Organization for Migration expects arrivals in Bosnia to continue to average 350 to 400 a week, although local activists say the number this year has been higher than that.

Dozens of people have been camping outside in a park in central Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, where they have set up a small tent settlement. Local residents have been bringing food and clothes to help.

Bosnia's Council of Ministers on May 15 met to consider measures to provide more housing, food, and medical care for the migrants. Officials have warned that the influx could strain Bosnia's already weak economy.

"Where can we get the money, where?" Mektic said on state TV, calling for help from the European Union and other Balkan countries in controlling the influx. "The route is growing and we could face a crisis."

Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, expressed concern in a letter to Bosnian authorities on May 15 over the "lack of systematic response" to the situation.

"I am concerned to learn that many refugees and migrants, including families with children, sleep rough on the streets and have irregular access to food," Mijatovic wrote. "This situation cannot continue in this way."

"The longer we wait to put accommodation and everything with it in place, the risk is we are creating...a mini-humanitarian crisis," said Peter Van Der Auweraert, western Balkans coordinator at the International Organization for Migration.

"It has to be done not in two months time week," he said.

More than a million migrants entered Europe through the Balkans in 2015 before many countries in the region closed their borders. EU member Hungary set up barbed-wire fences on its southern border with Serbia to stop the influx of migrants.

In this year's wave, migrants have been arriving first in Greece after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, then moving on toward Albania and Montenegro and eventually to Bosnia, where they hope to cross the border into Croatia or Slovenia.

Previously, migrants used a route through Greece to Macedonia and Serbia, and then on to Croatia or Hungary.

Included in the recent influx into Bosnia are people who were stranded in Serbia after the borders of neighboring EU member states were closed in 2016. The migrants stuck in Serbia are now increasingly attempting to cross into the EU through Bosnia.

Many Iranian migrants are also crossing into Bosnia from Serbia, after having taken advantage of a visa-free regime introduced last year between Serbia and Iran.

In the northwestern Bosnian town of Bihac, some 200 to 250 people, including families with children, have been staying in an abandoned former students home.

Local authorities and aid groups have provided food, basic medical aid, water, and containers with showers, Van Der Auweraert said.

"It is a big challenge to accommodate people in a building that is obviously abandoned, but compared to Sarajevo where people are sleeping in the streets, it is obviously a better solution," he said.

During lunch time, a windowless concrete hall is used to host dozens of migrants for a warm meal.

Among them recently was a man who idenitified himself as Ibrahim from Syria, who said he had tried to cross into Croatia with fellow migrants but police there beat them, broke their mobile phones, and took their money.

"We are human, not animals," Ibrahim said.

"I was sent back from Croatia six times," said Omar from Iraq, who declined to give his last name. He said he arrived in Bosnia with his younger brother after spending two years in Greece.

"I must get to Germany because all my family is there," Omar, 19, said.

With reporting by AP and Reuters
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