Sunday

21st Jan 2018

Croatia lets refugees pass as it struggles with mass influx

  • A petrol station opened up to refugees and let people spend the night on camp beds provided by the local Red Cross. (Photo: EUobserver)

Thousands of refugees spent the night in a makeshift refugee camp in Beli Manastir on Thursday (17 September), a small town in eastern Croatia, hoping to make their way west into Slovenia as Croatia struggles to cope with the inundation of asylum seekers.

After Hungary sealed its border with Serbia, at least 13,000 people have made their way into Croatia over the last two days, turning Croatia into the new frontline in Europe’s refugee crisis in an effort to reach western Europe.

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  • "If we had closed, they would have had nowhere to buy water or food from, so that's why we stayed open," one shopkeeper said. (Photo: EUobserver)

By Friday it became clear that Croatia, which is not a part of the passport-free Schengen zone, cannot cope with the number of refugees fleeing war and persecution from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other troubled countries.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said on Friday that Croatia will redirect people towards Hungary and Slovenia, and that it has given up on registering asylum seekers under EU law.

‘Police just told us, you are free now’

Local aid workers estimated that at least 8000 asylum seekers spent the night in Beli Manastir, a small town in eastern Croatia, 6 km from the Hungarian border and 30 km from the Serbian border.

A petrol station in the town opened up to refugees and let people spend the night on camp beds provided by the local Red Cross.

“If we had closed, they would have had nowhere to buy water or food from, so that’s why we stayed open,” a man working at the petrol station told EUobserver, though declined to give his name as he said he was worried about his job.

“24 years ago we were in the same situation during the war with Serbia, I was a refugee myself for seven years, I had to flee this area,” he added, explaining why local Croatians are sympathetic towards the migrants.

“We know what it feels like”, he said. “The EU should make some efforts to solve this,” the man added.

Another precious item for refugees available at the petrol station are local SIM cards, which allows them to check maps and talk to family back home.

Just over the other side of the road an abandoned military camp housed thousands with the Red Cross providing sleeping bags, food and water, and portable toilets.

The local Red Cross also set up a tent to treat people with exhaustion, dehydration, and swollen feet, as many had walked from a border crossing from Serbia, some 30 km from Beli Manastir, volunteers told this website.

They distributed 7,500 breakfasts on Friday morning and the government provided them with 5 tonnes of food, said Katarina Zoric, spokeswoman for the Croatian Red Cross.

People were streaming in from the Croatian border town of Tovarnik, where tense scenes unfolded on Thursday after authorities kept exhausted refugees at the train station with repeated promises of transportation to reception centers.

The migrants eventually broke through riot police lines, which led to authorities giving up on registering them even though Croatia’s interior minister on Thursday insisted that Croatia would stick to EU rules and process refugees who first entered the EU on their soil.

During the night, authorities transported the refugees to Beli Manastir.

“Police just told us, you are free now,” Mohammad, a 25-year-old Syrian refugee told this website, sitting on his sleeping bag on the pavement next to a petrol pump.

He said that after being left for several hours without water or toilet facilities on the outskirts of Tovarnik, police herded them onto buses. Several families got separated in the process.

“It was crazy. Where is the UN?,” he said.

Most are understood to want to travel onto Zagreb and then make their way into Slovenia. A train left on Friday with refugees from the Tovarnik border town, also headed for Zagreb.

Another domino falls under Dublin

In another twist in Croatia’s erratic response to the refugee crisis, Prime Minister Zoran Milovanovic told press that Croatia cannot cope with the influx and will redirect people toward Hungary and Slovenia and further towards Western Europe.

Croatia has given up registering people under EU rules. The so-called Dublin rules call for asylum seekers to be registered in the first country they enter in the EU.

"We'll give them food and water and that's it," the premier said at a press conference, adding that in the space of two days, 13,000 people had entered the country of 4 million.

Aid workers said some refugees had already made their way north into Hungary through the Croatian border, hoping to get to Austria, and remain undetected by local authorities to avoid registration and fingerprinting.

Hungary said on Thursday it also wants to build a fence on the Croatian border to stem the flow of asylum seekers.

Milovanovic said the borders can only be closed by walls, but said Croatia will not build one.

Hungarian government spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, told Associated Press it was "totally unacceptable for a European country to not respect European rules just because it was unprepared".

He added that Croatia would be "set back by many years" in its efforts to join the EU's Schengen zone of passport-free travel.

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