There were no casualties reported in the blaze that broke out at the Lipa tent camp near the Croatian border that once housed 1,200 migrants and was earlier criticised by rights groups as unsuitable due to its lack of resources.

Smoke rises from a fire at migrant camp Lipa, Wednesday, Dec 23, 2020, near Bihac in western Bosnia.
Smoke rises from a fire at migrant camp Lipa, Wednesday, Dec 23, 2020, near Bihac in western Bosnia. (AP)

A migrant camp in northwestern Bosnia has been destroyed in a blaze that a UN official blamed on former residents unhappy over the centre's temporary closure.

The Lipa tent camp near the Croatian border once housed 1,200 migrants and was earlier criticised by rights groups as unsuitable due to its lack of resources. 

The centre's former residents looked on as thick black smoke billowed from the site, which the UN migration agency had started withdrawing from earlier in the day because it lacked proper heating, electricity and other essentials for winter.

“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.

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Bosnia has become a bottleneck for thousands of migrants hoping to reach neighboring European Union member Croatia and then head toward richer EU nations.

Most are stuck in Bosnia’s northwestern Krajina region as other areas in the ethnically divided nation have refused to accept them.

Migrant camp to be closed 

The Lipa camp was to be closed on Wednesday and moved to another location, but officials said that since its tents and other facilities were almost entirely destroyed in the fire it cannot immediately be moved to another spot.

“Luckily, no casualties to our knowledge at this point but disaster nevertheless," Van Der Auweraert said on Twitter.

He later told reporters the fire was under control, but that most of the camp was either destroyed or damaged. He said most camp residents were still around the area because “there's no alternative accommodation available” in Bosnia for them.

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He said some migrants planned to head to Croatia as “quickly as they could,” some were aiming to travel to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo while others intended to stay in the Bihac area through the winter in squatter's camps.

Witnesses said the fire 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, told the Bosnian news portal that the arson started because the planned closure of the camp had triggered anger among 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."

The Lipa camp was only set up as a temporary shelter during the summer to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

Alarming' situation

Police expect the roughly 1,300 migrants who were staying in the camp to head towards the Bihac region, where some 2,000 others are already sleeping in abandoned buildings.

But tensions could flare as locals have protested against the influx.

Local officials in Bihac have refused the federal government's orders to reopen a reception centre that was abruptly shut down in October, right before municipal elections.

The mayor of Bihac on Wednesday asked police to replace locals who were standing guard in front of the old centre to prevent migrants from entering, regional TV channel N1 television reported.

The European Union, which has provided Bosnia with some 85.5 million euros to assist with migration since 2018, warned this week that migrant situation in Bosnia was "alarming".

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

Source: AP