Thousands of people poured into Croatia yesterday, turning it into the latest hotspot in the 1,000-mile exodus toward Western Europe after Hungary used tear gas, batons and water cannons to keep migrants out.
By yesterday morning, Croatian police said 6,200 people had entered the country since the first groups started arriving on Wednesday.
Croatia represents a longer and more arduous route into Europe for the asylum-seekers from Syria and elsewhere fleeing violence in their homelands. But they have little choice after Hungary sealed off its southern border with Serbia and began arresting anyone caught trying to enter illegally.
After bus trips through Serbia, the migrants crossed fields on foot to enter Croatia, where dozens of police directed them to trains and buses heading to refugee centres. Authorities warned them to avoid walking in those areas along the Serbian border that are still being de-mined from the country’s 1991-95 war.
Croatian interior minister Ranko Ostojic said the country has the situation under control but warned that “if huge waves start coming through Serbia, we must consider different moves.”
The migrants are unlikely to stay long in Croatia. Most plan to travel on, passing through Slovenia and then Austria en route to Germany or Scandinavia. Croatian foreign minister Vesna Pusic said the country “cannot force anyone to stay.”
By noon, some 3,000 migrants grew restless as they waited in blazing sun at the train station in the eastern town of Tovarnik that has been Croatia’s the main entry point. Smaller groups started walking along the rail tracks, but police turned them back, promising that a train would be there soon.
Hundreds of other asylum seekers came over a Danube River bridge to the northern Croatian town of Batina after being bused there by Serbs, overwhelming the local police.
Fearing a surge of migrants from Croatia, Austria and Slovenia called for an urgent, all-EU response. Both have reinstated border checks.
“We are being put to test”, said Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann. “We must prove we don’t want a Europe in which everyone will try to shift their problems to others’ shoulders.”
Slovenian prime minister Miro Cerar insisted his country will protect the European Union’s visa-free travel zone, but did not specify what measures government would take.
Hungary has stirred up more angst in Europe by saying it planned to build more fences along its borders, this time with Romania and Croatia. Romania responded with alarm after Hungary said that fence would be 43 miles long, saying that would violate European standards.
Clashes between migrants and Hungarian riot police broke out on Wednesday after people frustrated at being blocked from the country pushed open a gate at the Horgos border crossing with Serbia. Baton-wielding police responded with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons, and migrants threw rocks and other objects at them. Dozens were injured.
Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto lashed out against the strong criticism the country has faced internationally – including comments from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who called Hungary’s response unacceptable.
“I find it bizarre and shocking that certain esteemed international figures have stood on the side of people who for hours were throwing stones and pieces of cement at the Hungarian police,” Szijjarto said.