BIHAC, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — A huge fire broke out Wednesday at a temporary migrant camp in northwestern Bosnia that has been strongly criticized by rights groups as unsuitable due to its lack of resources. Officials said former residents started the blaze.
Thick black smoke rose from the Lipa tent camp near the Croatian border that housed 1,200 migrants. Residents were seen running away in panic from the fire but no injuries were immediately reported.
“As far as we know now, a group of former residents put three tents and containers on fire after most of the migrants had left the camp,” said the International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission in Bosnia, Peter Van Der Auweraert.
“Luckily no casualties to our knowledge at this point but disaster nevertheless,” Van Der Auweraert said on Twitter.
Witnesses said it appeared to have started in a fuel storage facility and then quickly spread to the tents where the migrants lived.
Natasa Omerovic, the camp director, said “the human factor” started the blaze, according to the Bosnian Klix.ba. portal. She said the camp was being closed Wednesday and moved to another location, triggering anger among the migrants.
“As we see, the tents are being set on fire in a chain action, and I think we are talking about vandalism,” she was quoted as saying. “The migrants are upset and angry, we can hear them cursing the state.”
Bosnia has become a bottleneck for thousands of migrants hoping to reach the European Union. Most are stuck in the country’s northwestern Krajina region as other regions in the ethnically divided nation have refused to accept them.
The EU has warned Bosnia that thousands of migrants face a freezing winter without shelter, and it urged the country’s bickering politicians to set aside their differences and take action. Thousands of people have been sleeping outdoors in makeshift tent camps or abandoned houses with no facilities.
Prior to the blaze, the EU feared that the announced closure of the Lipa camp would make things worse, even though living conditions there are deplorable. The camp was only set up as a temporary measure to cope with the impact of the coronavirus over the summer.
The first snow this month triggered alarm about the upcoming winter as migrants in makeshift tents appealed for help in freezing temperatures. Many have also alleged pushbacks and violence at the hands of nearby Croatian police.
This story corrects the title of Peter Van Der Auweraert to IOM’s local Bosnian mission chief, not overall chief.