World Bulletin/News Desk
Serbian authorities suffered a setback in their bid to relocate hundreds of asylum seekers from a freezing forest on Thursday after a barracks they planned to use was torched following a protest by local residents.
The government in the European Union candidate country has faced growing criticism over its failure to house a rising tide of migrants, mainly from Africa and the Middle East, who have legally sought asylum.
With the arrival of the first winter snow, around 300 migrants have been living rough in a forest because Serbia's two asylum centres are full.
Attempts to build a third centre have so far been thwarted by local protests.
On Wednesday, authorities tried to move dozens of the asylum seekers to temporary accommodation in an abandoned workers barracks some 30 kilometres southwest of the capital Belgrade. Villagers, however, blocked roads and the migrants spent most of the day on buses.
One of the barracks, of some 400 square metres, was razed to the ground overnight and two others were damaged by fire, police said. One person was arrested.
"Last night they (the asylum seekers) were accommodated in a hotel in Obrenovac so they could get a meal and take a shower," said Jelena Maric, a spokeswoman for Serbia's Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, which deals with the issue on behalf of the Serbian government.
"This is temporary," she said. "We are not going to give up."
As the EU squeezes traditional migration routes via the Mediterranean, migrants are increasingly trying their luck through the countries of the former Yugoslavia to reach Serbia's northern neighbour Hungary in Europe's borderless Schengen zone.
The turmoil of the Arab Spring, and particularly the war in Syria, have fed a rise in numbers, mainly through Turkey and Greece.
In Serbia, the number of people seeking asylum has shot up from 52 in 2008 to almost 4,000 so far this year. Serbia's two asylum centres hold around 250 people.
Serbia is obliged by law to provide accommodation and identification papers to anyone who seeks asylum, until their request is dealt with. Serbia rarely grants asylum, but requests can take up to a year to be processed.