Overwhelmed Slovenia calls in army amid surge in migrants

Policeman escorting a group of migrants near Dobova in Slovenia yesterday. Almost 20,000 asylum seekers have arrived in the tiny country of two million people since Saturday, and the government has warned that European solidarity is under threat.
Policeman escorting a group of migrants near Dobova in Slovenia yesterday. Almost 20,000 asylum seekers have arrived in the tiny country of two million people since Saturday, and the government has warned that European solidarity is under threat.PHOTO: REUTERS

Refugee fears grow as weather turns cold, nations close borders

LJUBLJANA • Slovenia yesterday called in the army to help manage a surge of asylum seekers desperately trying to reach northern Europe ahead of winter, as the tiny European Union state became the latest hot spot on the migrant trail.

"The last 24 hours have been the toughest and most demanding since the start of the crisis," the Slovenian government said, adding that Parliament was set to vote on allowing soldiers to help border police in the crisis "under very specific circumstances".

Pressing the EU for more solidarity, Ljubljana warned that it was "delusional" to expect individual countries to tackle the bloc's greatest refugee crisis since 1945.

The crisis showed no sign of abating as Greece saw a clear "spike in arrivals" - leaving 27,500 packed on its islands yesterday - amid fears of worsening weather and closing borders, the UN said.

More than 600,000 migrants and refugees, mostly fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have braved the dangerous journey to Europe so far this year. The trips which most have made on inflatable boats from Turkey to Greece have left more than 3,000 dead or missing.

The goal for many is the EU's biggest economy - Germany - which expects to take in up to a million refugees this year.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy has sparked a backlash at home, with 20,000 protesters gathering in the city of Dresden on Monday night to mark the first anniversary of the anti-migrant Pegida movement.

Merkel supporters also turned out in force, however, with counter-demonstrators almost matching the Pegida numbers.

Tensions have built along the migrant trail after Hungary shut its borders with Serbia and Croatia with a razor-wire fence - pushing the flow westwards to Slovenia.

Thousands of men, women and children have been left stranded in wet, freezing weather at Croatia's frontier with Serbia after they travelled up through Greece and Macedonia.

Dozens of tents have sprung up along the roadside at the Berkasovo checkpoint, which turned into a mudfield after hours of heavy rain.

Crowds chanted "Open! Open!" as security guards allowed in only up to 50 people every half hour.

"This is so cold. We couldn't sleep. I came 24 hours ago and spent the night in a tent," said Mr Azme Solei from the war-ravaged Syrian city of Homs.

Mr Solei said he had spent a year in a refugee camp in Turkey but decided to leave because of "unbearable" living conditions there.

"I would like to go to Norway as I heard they behave nice towards refugees there," he said.

More than 19,460 migrants have arrived in Slovenia since Saturday when Hungary closed its border with Croatia. The nation of two million people has repeatedly warned that the influx greatly exceeded its daily quota.

"Slovenia calls on the European Union states and institutions to engage actively in dealing with this disproportionate weight for our state... European solidarity is being challenged," the government said.

With Slovenian President Borut Pahor due to meet top EU officials in Brussels late yesterday, the European Commission said it had not received any request for assistance from Slovenia in addition to the €4 million (S$6.3 million) already granted this year.

"Of course we stand ready to support any member state that is... experiencing migratory pressures," said commission spokesman Mina Andreeva.

Buckling under the strain, Slovenia called on the army to help manage the flow, Prime Minister Miro Cerar said. "This does not mean a state of emergency," he said.

Slovenia criticised Croatia for lifting restrictions at the Serbian border on Monday night without warning. Ljubljana also accused neighbouring Austria of capping its intake at 2,000. But Vienna said more than 4,280 people had entered from Slovenia on Monday, with a further 1,700 expected yesterday.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2015, with the headline 'Overwhelmed Slovenia calls in army amid surge in migrants'. Print Edition | Subscribe