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EU lashes Bosnia for failing to properly care for migrants

The European Union’s top migration official on Tuesday criticized Bosnian authorities for failing to properly care for hundreds of migrants living in sub-zero temperatures on its territory, warning the Balkans country of its obligations if it hopes to join the EU.

Bosnia has faced sharp criticism for leaving around 1,000 people without shelter after a fire gutted the makeshift Lipa refugee camp near the northwest border with EU-member Croatia just before Christmas. The authorities at first said they would move the migrants to another location, but finally set up military tents at the site instead after locals elsewhere protested.

“Bosnia-Herzegovina must show it’s capable of managing migration. It must take responsibility, address the humanitarian situation,” Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told EU lawmakers.

Migrants eat in a makeshift camp in a forest outside Velika Kladusa, Bosnia, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Temperatures have plummeted way below zero with a spate of extremely cold weather in Bosnia where hundreds of migrants and refugees _ including entire families with small children _ have been sleeping rough while trying to reach Western Europe. (AP PhotoKemal Softic)

“As a country with a perspective of EU accession, we expect Bosnia-Herzegovina to work on sustainable, long-term solutions, to set up facilities evenly distributed across the full territory of the country,” Johansson said. She said she would visit the area in February.

The problem is not new. Bosnia has been widely criticized in recent years for mishandling the arrival of thousands of people, many fleeing war and poverty. The politically unstable and impoverished Balkan country is still recovering from its own war in the 1990s.

Divided into two feuding entities, Bosnia lacks a unified policy on migrants. The Serb-run part of the country has refused to accept any, and the overburdened northwestern region has complained it has been abandoned despite help from international organizations.

Medical staff examine migrants at the Lipa camp, outside Bihac, Bosnia, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Aid workers say migrants staying at a camp in northwestern Bosnia have complained or respiratory and skin diseases after spending days in make-shift tents and containers amid freezing weather and snow blizzards. Most of the hundreds of migrants at the Lipa facility near Bosnia's border with Croatia on Monday have been accommodated in heated military tents following days of uncertainty after a fire gutted most of the camp on Dec. 23. (AP PhotoKemal Softic)

Migrants come to Bosnia with the aim of reaching Croatia before moving on into Western Europe. Many have complained about being pushed back, which is illegal under international refugee law, and violence at the hands of Croatia’s police.

Johansson said thanks to EU help, around 900 people at the site in Bosnia now have shelter in weather-proof tents, with access to heating and food supplies.

“Thanks to our action, the situation has improved, but only from grave to serious. Stopping immediate risk to life is the beginning, not the end, of ensuring acceptable, dignified living conditions,” she said.

Medical staff examine migrants at the Lipa camp, outside Bihac, Bosnia, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Aid workers say migrants staying at a camp in northwestern Bosnia have complained or respiratory and skin diseases after spending days in make-shift tents and containers amid freezing weather and snow blizzards. Most of the hundreds of migrants at the Lipa facility near Bosnia's border with Croatia on Monday have been accommodated in heated military tents following days of uncertainty after a fire gutted most of the camp on Dec. 23. (AP PhotoKemal Softic)

The Lipa camp was only ever set up as a temporary measure to cope with the impact of the coronavirus over the summer. Bosnian central authorities wanted to move some migrants to a nearby facility at Bira, but local authorities blocked the move as protests erupted.

“Winter has a long way to run and I must admit that it is frustrating to have to set up tents and temporary shelters when we have an empty, fully equipped and winterized facility just 30 kilometers (19 miles) down the road,” Johansson said.

Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this report.

Migrants warm their hands above a fire at the Lipa camp, outside Bihac, Bosnia, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Aid workers say migrants staying at a camp in northwestern Bosnia have complained or respiratory and skin diseases after spending days in make-shift tents and containers amid freezing weather and snow blizzards. Most of the hundreds of migrants at the Lipa facility near Bosnia's border with Croatia on Monday have been accommodated in heated military tents following days of uncertainty after a fire gutted most of the camp on Dec. 23. (AP PhotoKemal Softic)

A migrant uses plastic bottles to take water out of a well during a snowfall at the Lipa camp, outside Bihac, Bosnia, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Aid workers say migrants staying at a camp in northwestern Bosnia have complained or respiratory and skin diseases after spending days in make-shift tents and containers amid freezing weather and snow blizzards. Most of the hundreds of migrants at the Lipa facility near Bosnia's border with Croatia on Monday have been accommodated in heated military tents following days of uncertainty after a fire gutted most of the camp on Dec. 23. (AP PhotoKemal Softic)

Migrants warm their hands above a fire at the Lipa camp, outside Bihac, Bosnia, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Aid workers say migrants staying at a camp in northwestern Bosnia have complained or respiratory and skin diseases after spending days in make-shift tents and containers amid freezing weather and snow blizzards. Most of the hundreds of migrants at the Lipa facility near Bosnia's border with Croatia on Monday have been accommodated in heated military tents following days of uncertainty after a fire gutted most of the camp on Dec. 23. (AP PhotoKemal Softic)