By Calin Neacu in Beli Manastir, with Bojan Kavcic at Harmica | AFP
Croatia, 19 September 2015
Thousands of refugees were stranded in the western Balkans on Saturday as Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia tussled over the EU’s escalating refugee crisis.
Chaos, rumour and proliferating border obstacles braked thousands of desperate people on their trek to reach northern Europe and turn the page on war or poverty.
In the latest hurdle, Hungary said it had completed a second frontier fence designed to keep illegal migrants out.
A 41-kilometre (25-mile) barbed-wire barrier along part of its frontier with fellow EU member Croatia “was finished overnight Friday,” defence spokesman Attila Kovacs told AFP in Budapest.
The remaining 330 km of the border runs roughly along the Drava river, which is difficult to cross.
The new barrier adds to a barbed-wire fence that Hungary set down along its frontier with Serbia, and backed with laws threatening illegal migrants with jail.
That move sparked fierce condemnation internationally and forced the migrant flow towards neighbouring Croatia.
Reversing an open-door policy, Croatia on Friday said it was swamped and redirected the migrants back to Hungary.
Thousands crossed from Croatia to Hungary before the final section of the fence was completed, Budapest said.
Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic on Friday said that Zagreb and Budapest had agreed to allow “vulnerable migrants” to cross.
Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said Saturday the policy of redirection would continue.
“There has not been an agreement with Hungary,” he said in a visit to Beli Manastir, near the Hungarian border.
“We have in some way compelled them to accept the refugees by sending them (to the border) and we will continue to do so.”
On the Croatian border with Slovenia, another EU member, hundreds of migrants spent the night in the open at the Bregana crossing, state-run HRT television reported.
At Harmica, several dozen migrants faced off with a cordon of riot police on the frontier bridge, demanding that Slovenian police let them enter the country, an AFP reporter saw.
Late Friday, police used tear gas against several hundred migrants, some with children, who had sought to push through the police line.
The clash happened shortly after Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said the small country might consider creating “corridors” for refugees wanting to reach northern Europe if they continue arriving in large numbers.
Slovenia’s ambassador to Germany, meanwhile told the Rheinische Post newspaper that his country would accept “up to 10,000” refugees.
Slovenian police said on Saturday that 1,287 had arrived as of midnight Friday, of which 483 were from Afghanistan, 470 from Syria and 126 from Iraq.
With no let-up in the flow of people desperate to find shelter in Europe from war and misery, new figures showed the European Union received almost a quarter of a million asylum requests in the three months to June.
The International Organisation for Migration (OIM) also said nearly 474,000 people had so far this year braved perilous trips across the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
At least 750 people were rescued Saturday from three small boats in international waters near the Libyan coast by a ship operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), a spokesman told AFP.
The continent’s biggest migratory flow since the end of World War II has dug a deep rift between western and eastern EU members, with Hungary leading the hardline group.
Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is the great magnet for the refugees, many of whom are Syrians.
On Friday, Berlin warned it could invoke EU’s majority voting system to force reluctant states to accept quotas of migrants.
Another worry is over the fate of the Schengen agreement, a pillar of the European project which allows borderless travel between member states.
There are now fences or restrictions on parts of the border between Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia.
These are in addition to identity checks that Germany, Austria and Slovakia have reimposed on parts of their borders, and Poland and the Netherlands are considering whether to follow suit.
EU interior ministers are to meet again on Tuesday, which will be followed by an emergency summit on Wednesday.
Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said Friday the EU was also preparing a “substantial” aid package for Turkey to help it meet the cost of hosting around two million Syrian refugees currently there.