Council of Europe Special Representative on Migration and Refugees Drahoslav Štefanek on Monday tried to convince local authorities and citizens in Bihać of the need to reopen the former migrant camp in that city, but received no support.
Stefanek, former head of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Council of Europe Office in Sarajevo, now arrived in a new role, following the escalation of the migrant crisis in the country, caused by the fact that a large number of migrants there are spending the winter out in the open or in makeshift tent settlements.
On the first day of his visit to Bihac, Stefanik tried to encourage the reopening of the Bira camp, which the authorities had decided to close down in September 2020, claiming that its citizens did not feel safe due to the presence of a large number of illegal migrants.
The migrants were then transferred from Bihac to a tent settlement in the nearby village of Lipa, but the camp was closed in December 2020. After that, hundreds of migrants were left outdoors and then provided with temporary accommodation in tents set up by the army.
At the same time, dozens of empty housing containers remained around the former Bira camp. European Union officials repeatedly called on Bosnia and Herzegovina's authorities to temporarily reopen Bira until a planned container settlement is set up in Lipa, so that migrants could have heating for the winter.
Bihać activist and former city councillor Sej Ramic said that Stefanek had also insisted on that, but citizens and local authorities still maintained that it was unacceptable for migrants to return to Bihac.
“He tried to convince us that it would be temporary accommodation for migrants. We already know what temporary means,” said Ramic, as carried by the Dnevni Avaz website, adding that the matter concerns not only Bihac but the entire Bosnia and Herzegovina and maybe even the region.
He said that Bihac citizens would, if necessary, organise themselves and physically prevent any attempt to return migrants to Bira.
Stefanek will be staying in Bosnia and Herzegovina until the end of the week and he will, in addition to camps in Una-Sana Canton, also visit those near Sarajevo, where serious incidents were reported last week when hundreds of migrants from the reception centre in Blazuj clashed with each other and with police.
Police agencies in Bosnia and Herzegovina estimate that there are currently over 7,000 illegal migrants in the country and that there is not enough room for hundreds of them in reception centres, so they are staying in abandoned buildings and tents.