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Bosnia Struggling With Influx Of Migrants After Other Routes Shut Down

Migrants sit in front of an abandoned building in the main park of the northwestern Bosnian town of Velika Kladusa earlier this summer.
Migrants sit in front of an abandoned building in the main park of the northwestern Bosnian town of Velika Kladusa earlier this summer.

Bosnia is struggling with an influx of thousands of refugees and migrants after previously popular migration routes to Western Europe through the Balkans shut down in the past year.

About 11,000 people from Asia and North Africa have registered their arrival in Bosnia so far this year. That compares to just 755 migrant arrivals for all of 2017.

Moreover, Bosnia expects at least 4,000 people to be stranded on its territory and in need of shelter through the coming winter.

The impoverished country, which is still recovering from a brutal war in the 1990s, was not affected much by the refugee influx of 2015 and 2016, when more than one million refugees passed through the Balkans on their way to the European Union.

But as borders have closed elsewhere, Bosnia has become a new transit route. The migrants, most of them from Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and Pakistan, arrive from Serbia and Greece via Albania and Montenegro, according to Bosnian authorities.

Thousands Stranded

Although officials say 60 percent of those who have arrived have already left the country, volunteers and aid workers who help migrants say between 4,000 and 5,000 people are stranded in Bosnia.

"The danger is that when the first snow falls, we will have people sleeping outside in conditions that even in summer were already not acceptable," said Peter Van der Auweraert of the International Organization for Migration.

Most migrants in Bosnia are concentrated in two northwestern towns, Bihac and Velika Kladusa, close to the 1000-kilometer-long border with Croatia.

They live in poor conditions, squeezed into abandoned buildings and tent settlements scattered in the woods. They use their time perusing their mobile phones and queuing for meals distributed by aid groups as they wait to continue their journey to the European Union.

But authorities in neighboring Croatia, the nearest EU member, have sealed the border and are sending back to Bosnia anyone they find with illegal status.

Local Red Cross volunteers have been providing food for migrants and refugees in Bihac since April. At first, they fed just a few hundred people, relying on local donations.

But since July, they have been serving two meals a day to 1,500 migrants who are also receiving basic health care from local medical workers. Although the UN refugee agency and other groups have now joined the effort, local volunteers say they need more help.

Many migrants have complained of being beaten and robbed by Croatian police when they attempt to cross over -- something Croatian authorities have denied.

"They take your mobile phones, your power pack. They destroy these and say 'Don't come back'," Abdul Hai Baloch from Pakistan's Balochistan Province told the Associated Press.

Some local residents in Bihac have started to complain that Bosnian authorities are not doing enough to deal with the migrant camps.

Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektic said further help is on the way, as the European Union recently pledged 6 million euros to help deal with the migrant influx, which comes on top of an earlier EU grant of 1.5 million euros.

"Now that the EU had provided us with this substantial donation...I believe we will have enough time to set up proper reception centers where migrants can spend the winter and be treated humanely," Mektic said.

With reporting by AP and Reuters
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