VIENNA: Thousands of refugees streamed into Austria Saturday after being shunted through Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia, as Europe’s divided nations stepped up efforts to push the wave of desperate humanity on to other neighbors.
The continent’s biggest migratory flow since the end of World War II has dug a deep rift between western and eastern EU members over how to distribute the refugees fairly, and raised questions over the fate of the Schengen agreement allowing borderless travel within the 28-nation bloc.
Several countries have imposed border controls, as recent figures have shown nearly half a million people have braved perilous trips across the Mediterranean to reach Europe so far this year, while the EU has received almost a quarter of a million asylum requests in the three months to June.
In Austria, up to 13,000 people entered the country over the course of Saturday alone, the head of the Austrian Red Cross told the APA news agency. Local police, who had said earlier they were readying for an influx of around 10,000 refugees and migrants, did not immediately confirm the figure.
Hungary’s right-wing government has faced international criticism over violent clashes with refugees and a hastily-erected fence along its frontier with Serbia, but in a shift late Friday, Hungarian authorities began transporting thousands of migrants straight to the border with Austria, an apparent bid to move them through and out of their territory as quickly as possible.
There was no let-up in the stream of people making the grueling journey across the Balkans into western Europe, with Croatia saying 20,700 had entered the country since Wednesday.
Zagreb, which initially said it would allow migrants to pass through freely, announced it was swamped on Friday and began transporting hundreds to the Hungarian border by bus and train — sparking a furious reaction from Budapest.
Despite the row, Croatian and Hungarian authorities appeared to be coordinating on the ground. An AFP journalist along the frontier between the two countries saw refugees board Croatian buses that took them to the border, before disembarking and crossing on foot then boarding Hungarian buses that quickly departed.
Refugees were also being taken to Slovenia, where 1,500 had arrived since Friday, according to the interior ministry.
Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia are all EU members, but only the latter two belong to Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone.
In a new hurdle aimed at stemming the influx, Hungary said it had completed a 41-kilometer barbed-wire barrier along part of its frontier with Croatia.
The remaining 330 kilometers of the border runs roughly along the Drava River, which is difficult to cross.
The new barrier adds to a barbed-wire fence that Hungary completed along its frontier with Serbia this week, backed with laws threatening illegal migrants with jail, which forced the migrant flow towards Croatia.