May 15, 2018 / 11:18 AM / 5 months ago

Bosnia struggles to cope with arrival of thousands of migrants

SARAJEVO/BIHAC, May 15 (Reuters) - Bosnia is struggling to cope with the arrival of thousands of migrants and refugees, many of whom are sleeping in parks in the capital and other towns as they seek passage into western Europe.

The country’s asylum centre has 200 beds and 80 to 150 people have arrived each day this month, Security Minister Dragan Mektic said on Monday.

About 4,000 people from Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Algeria and Afghanistan have entered Bosnia this year compared with 755 in 2017 and up to 1,500 are stuck there. Many have faced perilous journeys.

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

“I must get to Germany because all my family is there,” said the 19-year-old, echoing many others who spoke in the empty old building in Bihac near the Croatian border where he stayed.

More than a million migrants came to Europe in 2015. The so-called Balkan route into western Europe via Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia was shut in 2016 when Turkey agreed to stop the flow in return for EU aid and a promise of visa-free travel for its own citizens.

But since autumn, following stricter border controls between Serbia, Hungary and Croatia, smugglers have created a new route from Greece via Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia to Croatia and western Europe.

Migrants stranded in Serbia since 2016 are also increasingly crossing to Bosnia and many Iranians are also taking advantage of a visa-free regime introduced last year between Serbia and Iran.

While the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) expects arrivals to continue on average of 350-400 a week, Adnan Tatarevic from Pomozi.ba, a Sarajevo-based NGO that has helped migrants since January, says the numbers are higher.

“We expect about 50,000 arrivals by the end of the year,” Tatarevic told Reuters. International groups helping migrants have urged the government to accommodate people sleeping rough.

“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, IOM’s western Balkans coordinator. “It has to be done not in two months time but ... next week.”

Authorities in Sarajevo and the northwestern town of Bihac asked central government for help, saying they worried about health risks given the warmer weather and deteriorating public hygiene. The two cities are also tourism destinations.

Non-governmental organisations and residents, some of whom became refugees themselves during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, have helped migrants for months but now say they struggle to cope.

Government ministers on Monday pledged to move the migrants to alternative accommodation but warned Bosnia could be forced to close borders unless the migrants can continue their journeys to other EU countries. (Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

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