Smoke rises from a fire at migrant camp Lipa, Wednesday, Dec 23, 2020, near Bihac in western Bosnia | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/Hasan Arnautovic
Smoke rises from a fire at migrant camp Lipa, Wednesday, Dec 23, 2020, near Bihac in western Bosnia | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/Hasan Arnautovic

A migrant camp in Bosnia has been destroyed in a fire. Around 1,400 men are now expected to seek shelter in abandoned buildings or will be forced to sleep on the streets.

The Lipa migrant camp in Bosnia has largely been destroyed by fires said to have been started by residents on Wednesday. The camp had housed more than 1,300 single men, who were in the process of leaving when it was razed.

Firefighters managed to put out the fire, but all the four large tents in which the migrants had slept burned down, according to police spokesperson Ale Siljdedic.

The 1,400 migrants living in the camp had already begun moving out, along with the UN migration agency and other aid organizations, which recently announced their withdrawal due to the poor conditions.

"600-700 migrants had already left the center," Peter Van der Auweraert, the International Organization for Migration’s Chief of Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, told InfoMigants.

"Suddenly our staff noticed that a small group was setting fire to one of the tents and they repeated this action with the other tents and some of the containers were also on fire and in the chaos, looting started of the some of the items that were still left in the camp."

Most of the infrastructure of the camp was destroyed or severely damaged.in the blaze, according to Van der Auweraert. "We were very lucky that there were no casualties," he said.

An estimated 75% of the Lipa camp was destroyed in the fire, according to the IOM Chief of Mission Peter Van der Auweraert | Source: Balkan Insight
An estimated 75% of the Lipa camp was destroyed in the fire, according to the IOM Chief of Mission Peter Van der Auweraert | Source: Balkan Insight

Increasingly frustrated

Authorities are investigating the cause of the fire, and Van der Auweraert said he could not be sure of the motives of the individuals who were responsible.

However, there had been frustration among residents about the fact that they had to leave Lipa despite having no alternative shelter provided, he said.

The other facilities for single males in Bosnia are all over capacity. One center with space for 700 has 1,000 people, while another in the Canton of Sarajevo has a capacity of 2,400 and already houses 3,000, Van der Auweraert said.

Humanitarian challenge

The fire has left around 1,400 people with nowhere to go except to join around 1,500 migrants currently sleeping in the streets and in abandoned buildings in the Bihac area.

Bosnian authorities have been criticized for failing to provide adequate shelter for more than 3,000 refugees and migrants in the region, near the border with Croatia.

The Lipa camp was set up in April as a temporary solution, but it lacked electricity and heating. The IOM and other organizations had warned that the camp was unsuitable for winter.

When nothing was done, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which ran the facility, said it would pull out, along with the Danish Refugee Council and the Red Cross.

Local authorities in Bihac meanwhile have refused the government's orders to reopen a reception centre that they shut down in October.

Migrants in a makeshift camp outside the Bosnian town of Velika Kladusa. Many migrants wait in this part of the country in the hope they can cross the border into Croatia. December 3, 2020 | Photo: Joan Giralt / AP / picture-alliance
Migrants in a makeshift camp outside the Bosnian town of Velika Kladusa. Many migrants wait in this part of the country in the hope they can cross the border into Croatia. December 3, 2020 | Photo: Joan Giralt / AP / picture-alliance

Snow forecast

Weather conditions in the region are currently “bearable,” according to Van der Auweraert, however snow is forecast for the weekend.

"People sleeping in those conditions in abandoned buildings and in makeshift camps in the forest, that is a serious situation," he said.

"The Red Cross, IOM and the Danish Refugee Council will step up our humanitarian assistance for people sleeping outside the centers," he added.

"IOM has already been providing assistance such as winterized jackets, sleeping bags, food package and hygiene packages to the 1,500 migrants already sleeping outside."

However, Van der Auweraert described the humanitarian effort as "a bandaid that can reduce the bleeding but doesn’t address the cause of the bleeding."

"We remain in the situation that we urgently need accommodation for those that have no access to shelter at the moment," he said.

The European Union warned this week that migrant situation in Bosnia was "alarming", pointing to dire conditions in the Lipa camp.

Authorities must "act with the utmost urgency to address the needs of all refugees and migrants without shelter and save lives," EU officials said.

Van der Auweraert said it was up to the Bosnian authorities to decide where the migrants would be accommodated. Meanwhile how long the migrants survive if they are forced to sleep in the open will depend on the weather conditions, he said.

"These are resilient people, they have often been travelling for long periods of time, but I am concerned that we may see people’s physical and mental health deteriorating rapidly if the weather conditions worsen significantly in the next couple of days and weeks."

 

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