TOVARNIK, Croatia: Croatia closed most of its border with Serbia Thursday as it became the latest hotspot in Europe’s refugee crisis, with thousands of new arrivals overwhelming local authorities ahead of an emergency summit next week.
There were emotional scenes in eastern Croatia as local people came to hand out food to refugees 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.
Hungary came under heavy criticism for its treatment of refugees at its own border with Serbia on Wednesday, when riot police fired tear gas and water cannon during several hours of clashes with rampaging migrants angry at being blocked from entering.
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 behavior 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 refugees, many of them fleeing violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
That diverted many refugees 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.”
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 realized 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 refugees. 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 refugees, and later suspended all train traffic between the two countries.
Early Friday 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, which left 14 police injured.
Neighbors Greece, Serbia and Croatia joined the UN in blasting Hungary’s use of water cannon and tear gas against refugees 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.
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.
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.
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 Francois 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.