Croatia redirects migrants to border with Hungary as tensions mount

Migrants waiting in a train in the eastern-Croatia town of Tovarnik, close to the border between Croatia and Serbia, on Sept 18, 2015.
Migrants waiting in a train in the eastern-Croatia town of Tovarnik, close to the border between Croatia and Serbia, on Sept 18, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

MANASTIR, Croatia/BEREMEND, Hungary (AFP) -  Croatia will continue to redirect migrants to the Hungarian border, Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said on Saturday (Sept 19) as Budapest and Zagreb wrangled over how to deal with Europe’s refugee crisis.

“There has not been an agreement with Hungary,” Milanovic said. “We have in some way compelled them to accept the refugees by sending them (to the border) and we will continue to do so.”

“Croatia will not become the refugee centre of Europe,” he said.

Hungary for its part said it had completed placing barbed wire along 41km of its border with Croatia in an effort to stem the flow of people desperate to try to transit through the country on their way to western and northern Europe.

“The fence was finished overnight Friday,” Attila Kovacs told AFP. The remaining 330km of the border between Hungary and Croatia runs roughly along the Drava river, which is difficult to cross.

Overwhelmed Croatia on Friday began transporting hundreds of migrants by bus to its border with Hungary, ratcheting up tensions in Europe's refugee crisis as a string of countries closed their frontiers.

With Croatia claiming it had reached saturation point after more than 17,000 people arrived on its soil in the last two days, it began channelling the flow towards hardline Hungary, which has vowed to "defend its borders" from the influx.

Hours earlier, Budapest had started building a new anti-migrant fence along part of the Croatian frontier, sparking a diplomatic row between the neighbours as Budapest accused Zagreb of inciting refugees to break its draconian new border laws.

With no let-up in the flow of people desperate to find shelter in Europe from war and misery, and thousands stranded by border closures and increasing controls, new figures showed the European Union had received almost a quarter of a million asylum requests in the three months to June.

As the body of another Syrian child was washed up on a Turkish beach, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said that nearly 474,000 people had so far this year braved perilous trips across the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

The four-year-old girl, who has yet to be identified, was found near the town of Cesme after a boat carrying 15 Syrians to the Greek island of Chios sank, the Anatolia news agency said.

Harrowing pictures of three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi, who drowned as his family tried to reach the Greek island of Kos, caused global dismay and seemed to briefly galvanise a European response to the biggest refugee crisis the continent has faced since World War II.

But with eastern EU members fiercely resisting plans to take a share of the new arrivals, and Hungary this week sealing its southern border with Serbia, thousands of refugees have tried to open a new route to northern Europe through Croatia and Slovenia.

But after two days of letting people in, Croatia on Friday announced it was unable to cope, closing seven of the eight crossings along its eastern border with Serbia and bussing some people to the Hungarian frontier.


"As of today we will start applying new methods," Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said as Zagreb began dispatching dozens of buses to the frontier. "What other choice do we have?"

Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic later said that Zagreb and Budapest had agreed to allow "vulnerable migrants" to cross into Hungary.

An AFP correspondent in the Hungarian border village of Beremend said that by late afternoon around 20 buses, each carrying around 60 migrants, had been allowed to cross the frontier.

Another thirty buses were waiting to cross in the evening.

"Norway, I want to go to Norway," one woman, feeding her baby with a bottle, could be heard telling a police officer as she stepped into Hungary.

To the north, Slovenia also announced it was suspending rail links with Croatia until the end of the day as migrants began massing on its southern border.

At Harmica, a small village on Croatian side of the frontier, buses were arriving every hour, bringing more and more people as Slovenian police watched from the other side of a fence, some peering through binoculars into the surrounding cornfields.

"I just want to cross the border," said a young Syrian student wearing a black Iron Maiden T-shirt.


With fears growing in eastern Europe that it will be left to carry the can for the chaotic situation, a top EU official vowed not to leave the region in the lurch.

"You are not a parking lot for refugees, you are also victims of the situation and we won't leave you," EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn told the Macedonian parliament.

Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Asselborn said 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, although he added this was not about trying to "buy Turkey off for blocking the route to those who want to come to Europe."

Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN refugee agency, said that chaos was filling the vacuum left by the "absence of a coherent and united response", saying two key EU meetings next week were "crucially important".

"These occasions may be the last opportunity for a positive, united and coherent European response to this crisis. Time is running out," he warned.

Official figures showed the EU received 213,000 asylum applications between April and June, up 85 percent from the same period in 2014.

Germany had the highest number - more than a third of the total - while Hungary received the most applications relative to its population size, the Eurostat agency said.

Earlier this week, the UN rights chief suggested that Budapest's policies were apparently guided by "xenophobic and anti-Muslim views".

But for one Syrian family, there was good news as Pope Francis put them up in a Vatican apartment, aides revealed on Friday.

The Christian family is the first of two that the Catholic leader has promised to help after he called on every parish in Europe to put up at least one family.