Balkans struggles with growing backlog of migrants

BERKASOVO, Serbia/LJUBLJANA (Reuters) -  The Balkans faced a growing backlog of migrants on Monday (Oct 19), thousands building up on cold, wet borders after the closure of Hungary’s southern frontier diverted them to Slovenia.

In desperate scenes, several thousand people, many of them Syrians fleeing war, spent the night on the muddy ground of no-man’s land between Serbia and European Union-member Croatia.

“Open the gate, open the gate!” they chanted, held back by lines of Croatian police.

In Croatia, about 1,800 people were halted on a train short of the Slovenian border, where Slovenian police barred access with an improvised fence. They disembarked and walked along the tracks, wrapped in raincoats or plastic sheeting against the rain.

Around 150, mainly families with children, were allowed to cross the frontier, the rest spent the night in the open, warming themselves around open fires.

After Hungary closed its border with Croatia to migrants on Friday, the unrelenting flow – en-route to Austria and Germany, the favoured destination – has been diverted to Slovenia.  

But Slovenia, a country of two million people, has imposed a daily limit of around 2,500, saying it will only take in as many as can exit into Austria, forcing Croatia too to ration entry from Serbia with its own refugee camps full to capacity.

Upwards of 5,000 people are flowing across Balkan borders daily, from Greece into Macedonia and Serbia, both poor former Yugoslav republics with barely the capacity to cope.

“We don’t have any more raincoats,” said Dr Ramiz Momeni, director of the UK-based Humanitas Charity, helping out on the Serbia-Croatia border. “There’s a bottleneck of people that can’t get anywhere so they have to stay here in the rain. Some of these people have been here under sheets for 12 hours. Of course, they’re going to get sick.”

Slovenia said Austria was accepting a maximum of 1,500, far fewer than were previously entering from Hungary, but a spokesman for the Austrian Interior Ministry denied Vienna had set any limit.

“People were fighting last night for a tent; we were sitting under blankets and we are now wet and cold,” said an Iraqi man called Idris, waiting in the rain to enter Croatia from Serbia.  

The arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees this year to Europe’s shores, fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia by boat across the Mediterranean and Aegean, has exposed deep divisions in the EU.  

Hungary’s right-wing government says the mainly Muslim migrants pose a threat to Europe’s prosperity, security and “Christian values”, and has sealed its borders with Serbia and Croatia with a steel fence and new laws that rights groups say deny refugees their right to seek protection.

The EU has agreed a plan, resisted by Hungary and several other ex-Communist members of the bloc, to share out 120,000 refugees among its members. It is also courting Turkey with the promise of money, easier EU travel for Turks and “re-energised”accession talks if Ankara tries to stem the flow of migrants across its territory.