Balkan routes to northern Europe close: Migrant crisis swells

Balkan routes to northern Europe close: Migrant crisis swells
Road and rail routes to northern Europe from the Balkans were closing to migrants Friday, after EU countries began closing their borders to an increasing numbers of refugees fleeing war.
4 min read
18 September, 2015
Road and rail routes to northern Europe from the Balkans were closing to migrants on Friday, after a string of countries closed their borders.

The crisis, challenging the EU's humanitarian reputation and its vaunted policy of border mobility, has triggered an emergency summit of the 28-nation bloc on Wednesday.

Desperate to reach Germany and Sweden - seen as welcoming havens of peace and prosperity - thousands of refugees have travelled by car, bus and train, reaching the southern EU rim in Serbia.

     Scenes of chaos and despair at the Croatian-Serbian border brought home the human scale of the problem
But Hungary sealed off its border with Serbia on Tuesday, displacing the flow to Croatia, a fellow EU member.

After initially vowing to let the refugees through, Croatia on Thursday said it was overwhelmed by the influx, and closed seven of its eight crossing points with Serbia.

"Up to now we have registered 13,000 migrants on Croatian territory," Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic told N1 television station on Friday.

"This figure means that our capacities to take in more are saturated."

Migrants tried to continue their northward trek by train through Croatia's neighbour, EU member Slovenia, which then announced it was suspending all Croatian rail links until late Friday.

Scenes of chaos and despair at the Croatian-Serbian border brought home the human scale of the problem.

Thousands were camped in the fields around the rural town of Tovarnik on Friday, whose little train station has become the latest flashpoint in a months-long drama.

Landmine warning

A train there had been waiting to leave since 4am [2am GMT], Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch emergencies director, told an AFP reporter.

"It's pretty dramatic. People are getting very angry. If the train doesn't leave they're going to start fighting," he warned.

"It's complete chaos. There are still thousands waiting after spending a rough night with little food or shelter. This is a one-street town which is completely overwhelmed."

Bouckaert added: "If people avoid the official crossing, they could end up in landmine fields."

Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the UN refugees agency UNHCR, said more people were arriving there from Serbia.

"More and more people are coming from Serbia. I've just seen 60 Syrians that just arrived and one young man said there were 1,000 more behind them."

In Harmica, a small village on the Croatian side of the border with Slovenia, a couple in ther 30s with a four-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl gave details of their gruelling trip through Europe to escape fighting in Syria.

"We've been travelling for six days, first across the sea and then through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia," the young woman said.

"We left Syria because of the war, we want to get to Germany."

Hungary came under renewed criticism on Thursday, a day after riot police on its Serbian border fired tear gas and water cannons at migrants enraged at being blocked from entering the country.

UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said Hungarian government policy was apparently being guided by "xenophobic and anti-Muslim views", while Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said: "This torture and non-European behaviour must stop."

Unabashed, Hungary's hardline conservative premier, Viktor Orban, announced Friday that hundreds of troops had begun laying a razor-wire barrier along the country's border with Croatia.

The barrier will add to a fence that Hungary has set down alongside its border with Serbia.

"Forces are being redeployed, 600 soldiers are already at the scene, 500 will arrive there in the course of the day, and several hundred at the weekend. Two hundred police have been assigned to the Croatian border," Orban said.

"There will be no sandhill or molehill to hide behind, we will defend our borders."

EU's deep split

Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them Syrians fleeing war, have sought refuge in the EU this year.

The influx - the greatest migratory flow in Europe since the end of World War II - has dug a deep rift between western and eastern EU members, with Orban leading the hardline group.

EU nations are battling over how, or whether, to share out the refugee flow.

Germany on Friday warned that it could invoke EU's majority voting system to force reluctant states to accept quotas of migrants.

Another worry is that the proliferation of frontier controls within the EU could wreck the Schengen accord, a pillar of the European project which allows borderless travel between member states.

Germany, Austria and Slovakia have all reimposed identity checks on parts of their borders, and Poland and the Netherlands are considering whether to follow suit.

Under a draft law seen by AFP, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere is seeking to toughen asylum laws by sending migrants back to the first EU country they reached and by reducing benefits.

If passed, the law would represent a major reversal on Germany's easing of asylum laws for Syrians, a factor contributing to the influx that has left Germany bracing for up to a million asylum seekers this year.

EU President Donald Tusk has called for an emergency summit next Wednesday.

French President Francois Hollande says he would use the summit to ask Turkey to keep Syrian refugees on its soil until the war ends.