BIHAC – Heavy, gray clouds hung low above a makeshift migrant camp on Bosnia’s border with Croatia, heralding more rain and misery for hundreds of people stuck in the remote tent field as they try to get to Western Europe.
Rain this autumn has turned the Vucjak camp into a pool of mud. Garbage is everywhere, and migrants tread carefully between the crammed, cold tents or cuddle in their sleeping bags, close to each other.
“Here, it is not possible to live. You can see that,” said Yemshir, from Pakistan. “We need a good place, for life, sleeping, for eating, for drinking.”
Local authorities set up the camp earlier this year at a covered-up landfill not far from a minefield left over from the Balkan country’s 1990s ethnic war. Known as “the jungle” among migrants, the tent settlement has been deemed unfit by leading international organizations, but local authorities have said they cannot close it down before a new location is found.
On Thursday, the European Union’s top migration official joined the calls for the closure of the camp, which is close to Bosnia’s northwestern town of Bihac.
Migrants who spoke to The Associated Press about the conditions would give only their first or last names out of fear of deportation or retaliation.
“It’s like animal life here,” Amir, also from Pakistan, said.
An estimated 50,000 migrants have crossed Bosnia since last year, bound for the EU. Impoverished Bosnia has been struggling to cope with the pressure.
EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos warned Thursday that adequate accommodations must be provided for about 8,000 migrants in the country “to prevent a major humanitarian crisis in the coming winter.”
The EU has given Bosnia over 36 million euros ($40 million) in aid, but conditions at Vucjak are so bad that “no EU financial support can, or will be, provided for it,” Avramopoulos said.
Further fueling tensions, authorities in northwestern Bosnia were threatening to institute a curfew in two other large local migrant camps to press the central government to relocate people to other areas.
Those camps, hosting some 2,000 people, near the towns of Bihac and Velika Kladusa are run by the International Organization for Migration. Local authorities said that starting Friday they will not let any more people into the camps, while only those heading toward the Croatian border will be allowed to leave.
IOM official Peter Van der Auweraert warned that the decision could lead to worsening of the security situation and even prompt a pullout of international organizations from the area.
“There is no plan B” if the two IOM-run camps are closed, he said.
In the Bira camp, in Bihac, migrants sleep in containers placed inside a sprawling hall. The news that they won’t be allowed to leave and rumors that the camps could be shut down left them wondering what will happen next.
Han, another migrant from Pakistan, said “there should be an alternative” because people won’t stop coming into Bosnia while fleeing violence or poverty in their home countries.
“If you close the camp, people will sleep on roads,” he said. “But people will come.”
Migrants staying in Bihac try to go over a nearby mountain to get into Croatia before moving on. They often spend weeks, or even months, in Bosnia trying to cross several times into Croatia, where police have been accused of violent pushback of migrants. Police deny that.
On Thursday, a group of migrants from Syria, including a shoeless 5-year-old, could be seen camping by the fire at an abandoned house on the Pljesevica mountain before setting off in the evening.
At the Vucjak camp, migrants said they won’t give up, despite the misery. Huddling around a campfire, some lifted their feet above the flame to absorb the heat. Anwar, also from Pakistan, kept his hands close to the warmth.
“It’s very cold,” he said as he smiled.