Refugees inundate new EU crisis hotspot Croatia

Border police overwhelmed by refugees. Croatia, 17 September. [Channel 4/YouTube]

Croatia closed most of its border with Serbia Thursday (17 September) as it became the latest hotspot in Europe’s migrant crisis, with thousands of new arrivals overwhelming local authorities ahead of an emergency EU summit next week.

There were emotional scenes in eastern Croatia as local people came to hand out food to migrants finally departing after a long wait near the Serbian border, with more than 11,000 migrants having entered the country since early Wednesday, according to the interior ministry.

Croation President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovi? told the military to be ready to join the effort to stop thousands of people criss-crossing the Western Balkans in their quest for sanctuary in the wealthy bloc.

Late on Thursday, police announced they had banned all traffic at seven border crossings. “The measure is valid until further notice,” police said in a statement.

Hungary border blocked

Migrants have been streaming into European Union member Croatia for two days, their path into the bloc via Hungary blocked by a metal fence, the threat of imprisonment and riot police who fired teargas and water cannon on Wednesday to drive back stone-throwing men.

Hungary came under heavy criticism for its treatment of migrants at its own border with Serbia. United Nations 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.”

Hungary sealed off its border with Serbia this week, cutting off a key route into the European Union used this year by more than 200,000 migrants, many of them fleeing violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

That diverted many migrants to Croatia, which on Thursday responded to the influx by closing seven of its eight border crossings with Serbia.

Authorities in Zagreb had initially said they would let people pass through freely on their way to other EU countries, but Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic warned his country’s resources for dealing with the influx were “limited”.

“I neither want to nor can stop these people,” Hina news agency quoted him as saying.

“If we can, we will register them; if there will be more of them, we will not be able to register them. We will do our best, but I cannot guarantee that we will be able to do so.”

Chaotic day

Several hundred people were finally on their way to the Croatian capital Zagreb late Thursday after a chaotic day in which thousands were trapped for hours in the baking sun at a small rural train station at Tovarnik near the border, waiting for transport.

There were manic scenes as people barged their way onto the evening train at nearby Ilaca. Elderly women and babies had to be pulled out from the crush, though the situation calmed as people realised there was enough space onboard.

Local women showed up with food, water and baby supplies, and there were emotional farewells as the train finally pulled away, with cries of “We love you!” from the departing migrants. Croatian girls made heart signs with their hands and wiped away tears.

But piling on the pressure, Slovenia announced late Thursday it had stopped a train from Croatia carrying migrants, and later suspended all train traffic between the two countries.

Early Friday (18 September) morning, however, a train left a Croatian border station for a Slovenian town, with police declining to comment on why it was granted access.

Hungary angrily rejected a growing chorus of criticism of its handling of Wednesday’s clashes (16 September), which left 14 police injured.

Neighbours Greece, Serbia and Croatia joined the UN in blasting Hungary’s use of water cannon and tear gas against migrants as “unacceptable”

But Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto rejected the world’s reading of the events as “bizarre”, saying that “aggressive” migrants had been responsible for the violent clashes with police by throwing stones, sticks and plastic bottles.

“Hungary will defend its borders no matter what outrageous criticism it gets from whomever in the international political elite,” Szijjarto said.
Germany reiterates EU funding threat

In Brussels, EU President Donald Tusk said all 28 leaders of the bloc would next Wednesday hold an emergency summit on the continent’s worst migration crisis since World War II.

The bloc is bitterly split over how to fairly distribute the migrants across the EU, and there are fears that Europe’s vaunted Schengen agreement, which allows borderless travel between member states, could be in jeopardy.

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.

>> Read: Tusk calls emergency summit on refugee crisis

Under a draft law seen by AFP on Thursday, Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere is seeking to toughen asylum laws by sending migrants back to the first European Union 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 massive influx that has left Germany expecting up to a million asylum seekers this year.

In a thinly veiled jab at Hungary, German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel reiterated threats of blocking EU funding for countries that do not show solidarity in the refugee crisis.

“Europe is a community of values based on human sympathy and solidarity. And those that don’t share our values can’t count on our money over time,” Gabriel warned in an interview with the newspaper Bild.

“If it continues like this, then Europe is in danger, more than it was from the financial crisis or the Greece crisis,” Gabriel said.

Meanwhile, in a sign of growing pressure on the EU’s external borders, Bulgaria began deploying 1,000 troops to the Turkish frontier where several hundred people, mostly Syrians, spent a third day stuck near a border city.

French President François Hollande said late Thursday that he would use next week’s emergency EU summit to ask Turkey to keep Syrian refugees on its soil until the war ends.

EU leaders have agreed on the outlines of a two-year plan to deal with unprecedented numbers of migrants fleeing the Middle East and Africa.

But implementing the system to resettle or relocate 60,000 refugees is proving to be highly contentious at a time of rising anti-immigration parties in Europe. Many countries, including France and Germany, do not reject the idea of burden-sharing for refugees, but contend that the European Commission's proposed quota system needs to be reworked.

>>Read: Germany and France urge Commission to revise immigration plan

EU leaders argued through the night at a summit in June over the plan, wary of taking in migrants and reflecting deep national rivalries that the bloc's cooperation is supposed to transcend. They have set December as the latest deadline to agree final numbers.

>>Read: EU migration meeting turns into fracas

>>Read: Juncker suffers double blow on immigration at summit

But the refugee crisis has worsened since then. Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commisison, now hopes to convince EU member states to accept the mandatory distribution of 160,000 refugees.

In order to achieve this, the Dublin Regulation, which forces refugees to apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in, and is often accused of destroying solidarity between EU countries, would have to be altered or suspended.

Such an ambitious policy would require a fundamental change in attitude among EU leaders, who in May refused a similar distribution plan for just 40,000 refugees.

The urgency of the migration crisis will force the EU to review the list of safe countries of origin and examine the system of distribution for asylum seekers, two issues that have been blocked at the European level for years.

>>Read: Juncker defies EU countries with distribution plan for 160,000 refugees

  • 22 September: Interior ministers meet in Brussels
  • 23 September: Emergency summit in Brussels

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