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Tensions grow as Bosnian authorities crack down on migrants

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Tensions are growing in the northwestern Bosnia after local authorities launched a widespread crackdown on thousands of migrants stranded in the area and set up police roadblocks to prevent more Europe-bound newcomers from arriving.

Authorities in Bosnia’s Krajina region, which borders European Union-member Croatia, dispatched special police forces Wednesday night to a U.N.-run migrant camp near the town of Bihac to calm a protest by 1,000 migrants over alleged police beating of a homeless migrant.

The staff of the International Organization for Migration, which is running all seven migrant camps in Bosnia, withdrew from the tent camp of Lipa before special police arrived. Officers fired several warning shots into the air to quell unrest by stone-throwing migrants.

Meanwhile, in two other migrant camps in Bihac, each housing over 1,000 single men, eight migrants tested positive for coronavirus this week — the first time that infections were found in the IOM-registered facilities in Bosnia. Those migrants, all with mild cases, were transferred to Bihac’s public hospital, a move that upset residents. Public anger grew further after authorities announced that two of them had escaped from isolation and fled.

Authorities in Krajina have grown increasingly hostile to the thousands of migrants trapped in their region, particularly to an estimated 2,500 who are sleeping outdoors in squalid, insanitary conditions in Bihac and several other border towns. The hostility has sparked a proliferation of vocal vigilante groups that are threatening migrants with violence and expulsion.

This year, some 10,500 migrants and refugees have entered impoverished Bosnia, which has never truly recovered from its brutal 1992-95 war. That compares to just 755 migrant arrivals for all of 2017.

Frustrated that other parts of Bosnia are not sharing the migration burden, Krajina authorities decided last week to prevent all new migrant arrivals. Police officers on the main highway now turn back any migrants. In response, police forces of adjacent regions started blocking migrants from walking back to their areas.

Since the standoff began this week, several hundred people, including women and children, have been taken off buses and trains and left trapped on a road near the town of Bosanska Otoka with no access to food or shelter.

Krajina authorities have also imposed a ban on transporting migrants on trains, buses or taxis, banned migrants from gathering in public places and banned residents from renting or providing housing to migrants. Amnesty International has described the moves as “discriminatory and reckless.”

Peter Van der Auweraert of the IOM refugee agency warned that the crackdown is just fueling an already “volatile” situation.

“I am concerned that the situation may get out of hand, in terms of protests and demonstrations, either by the local population or by the migrants,” Van der Auweraert said. “I am also concerned that we are hurtling toward a humanitarian catastrophe if we do not have sufficient accommodation when the winter hits.”

Van der Auweraert said a persistent shortage of housing for migrants and the refusal by local authorities elsewhere in Bosnia to accept migrants is leaving thousands of people homeless in Krajina, sleeping in parks or abandoned buildings without access to medical care or sometimes even food. This increases a sense of insecurity among the region’s residents.

Bosnia in 2017 became a bottleneck for thousands of migrants from the Mideast, Asia and North Africa seeking better lives in Europe when other nations closed off their borders.

Initially, most migrants who entered Bosnia were there temporarily before crossing into Croatia. However, Croatia, which shares a highly porous 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) border with Bosnia, has taken additional steps to prevent cross-border movement, including erecting fences at some crossings.

Human rights groups have repeatedly accused Croatian police of beating migrants, confiscating their meager belongings and illegally pushing them back into Bosnia without notifying Bosnian border guards. Croatian police deny the allegations.