Thousands of migrants left without shelter after Bosnia camp burned down

© Reuters/DADO RUVIC Migrants try to warm themselves near the burned migrant center "Lipa" in Bihac

By Dado Ruvic

BIHAC, Bosnia (Reuters) – More than a thousand migrants from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa were left to sleep in the cold after their camp in northwestern Bosnia burned down amid a dispute among Bosnian politicians over where to house them.

On Wednesday, a fire destroyed the camp in Lipa housing about 1,200 people. Police and UN officials have said the blaze was probably started by migrants unhappy at the temporary closure of the camp, scheduled for the same day, and uncertainty about where they would be relocated in Bosnia.

© Reuters/DADO RUVIC Remains of burnt tents and beds are seen at the migrant center “Lipa” in Bihac

Dozens of men spent the night at a damaged metal container near the site of the fire, where only a ghostly steel construction remained. Smoke was still rising from some burned patches of ground on Thursday morning.

Other migrants tried to erect nylon tents and slept fully dressed on the frozen ground. Most of them walked through the woods towards the town of Bihac, near the Croatian border, avoiding areas marked with warnings about landmines remaining from the Bosnian war in the 1990s.

© Reuters/DADO RUVIC Migrants stand near the remains of burnt tents at the migrant center “Lipa” in Bihac

About 10,000 migrants from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa are stuck in Bosnia, hoping to reach wealthier countries in the European Union.

“I couldn’t sleep last night, I sat all night,” said Bylal from Pakistan, adding that he would wait to see if the government would provide them with a new shelter.

The Lipa camp, which was opened last spring as a temporary shelter for the summer months 25 km away from Bihac, was set to be shut on Wednesday for winter refurbishing. But Bosnia’s authorities failed to find alternative accommodation for residents.

The central government wanted the migrants to temporarily return to the Bira camp in Bihac, which was shut down in October, but local authorities disagreed saying that other parts of Bosnia should also share the burden of the migrant crisis.

© Reuters/DADO RUVIC Migrants leave the burned migrant center “Lipa” in Bihac

“Please open the Bira camp so everybody goes there, it’s very good there,” said Yasin, also from Pakistan. “Here it’s cold, we can’t stay here, we don’t have food, we are hungry.”

© Reuters/DADO RUVIC Remains of burnt tents and beds are seen at the migrant center “Lipa” in Bihac

The European Union, which had supported Bosnia with 60 million euros to manage the migrant crisis and pledged 25 million euros more, has repeatedly asked the authorities to find an alternative to the unsuitable Lipa camp, warning of an unfolding humanitarian crisis.

“We urge … the authorities to rise above political considerations and temporarily reopen the centre Bira in Bihac,” the EU said in a statement on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Dado Ruvic; Additional reporting and writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)