Bowing to international pressure, Bosnian authorities have agreed to dismantle a makeshift refugee camp of freezing snow-covered tents, but some people living there have been refusing food in protest against being resettled.
Some 800 migrants are stuck in the Vucjak camp, a former landfill area in forests near the northwestern Bosnian town of Bihac.
“It was agreed that migrants would be moved early next week from this locality to other reception centres … and that this makeshift camp would be closed,” the Security Ministry said in a statement on Friday.
The camp’s residents, who are eager to reach the European Union, say they do not want to be rehoused further away from the Croatian border, which lies just 8km (five miles) away.
Bosnia is struggling to deal with an upsurge in migrant numbers since EU members Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia sealed their borders against undocumented immigration. Close to 50,000 refugees and migrants have entered Bosnia since 2018.
Many manage to make it into Western Europe and around 8,000 are currently in Bosnia, most of them in the Bihac area hoping to get into the EU.
“They are closing down the camp but people will not go to another city or another camp,” Mohammed Sadik, from Afghanistan, told Reuters.
Many people at the camp were wrapped in blankets, while some walked barefoot through the snow and mud to collect firewood.
Some held banners reading: “We request EU to open the border,” and “We are dying here.”
International aid organisations have repeatedly warned that the camp is unfit for hosting people because it is located on a former landfill and close to a minefield from Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war. The site has no running water or toilets, and conditions worsened further after snow fell this week.
A senior European human rights envoy who visited the area this week described living conditions in the Vucjak camp as “shameful”.
“It is now urgent to relocate these people and provide them with decent accommodation,” Dunja Mijatovic, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, told reporters.
“If we don’t close the camp today, tomorrow people will start dying here.”
At a press conference in Sarajevo on Friday, Mijatovic also expressed concern about reports of violent pushbacks by Croatian police – allegations that many migrants have made but that Zagreb repeatedly denies.
“I was particularly alarmed by stories of migrants being beaten and stripped of their belongings, including their shoes, and forced to walk across rough terrain to return back to Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Mijatovic said.
The people from Vujcak camp will initially be moved to camps run by the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), according to Security Minister Dragan Mektic, speaking on national radio.
After two or three weeks, they will be put in a new reception centre under construction in a former military barracks near Sarajevo, he said.
Previous attempts to move migrants back towards the capital have been hampered by the fact that many eventually return to Bihac to be close to the border.
“If they take us out of here, we will come back after one day, after one hour, one minute,” Fazil Rahman, a migrant from Afghanistan, told the AP. “We will come back here again.”
“We do not want to go anywhere. If we are going to other camps then let us cross the border. We do not want to stay in Bosnia or Croatia. We are trying to go to Germany, France, Belgium for a better future,” Abdulah Walli, also from Afghanistan told Reuters.
Bosnia’s northwest Bihac region, which also hosts several thousand migrants in IOM-run camps, has become a key base for migrants from the Middle East and Asia who cross the Balkans to reach Western Europe.
The route through mountainous Bosnia emerged after the northern Balkan path towards Hungary was largely stamped out in 2016.