Refugees hoping to reach the safety of the EU are facing a fresh obstacle after Croatian police blocked off the country’s border with Serbia, which had in recent days become the main entry point to the EU for thousands of people walking north from Greece.
More than 2,000 refugees were stranded from Monday to Tuesday in no man’s land between the Croatian village of Tovarnik and the Serbian town of Šid, medics on the scene told the Guardian, creating another dilemma for European leaders hoping to hammer out a migration strategy in Brussels this week.
A few people are gradually being allowed through the border, but the development marks the first time Croatia has attempted to stop refugees from entering its territory since it became the primary refugee route to northern Europe last week.
After Hungary shut its southern border a week ago, refugees swerved west through Croatia, and for several days Croatian police let tens of thousands enter through this particular crossing point. They were then allowed to wait at the first train station across the border. But with Croatia struggling to process people fast enough, officials are keeping people outside the borders until space frees up inside.
Ahmed Twaij, a British doctor who has travelled to the Croatian border to help the aid effort, said the refugees are stuck between two lines of border police, with journalists barred from joining them. “At the back end you have the Serbian police, and at the front end you have the Croatian police,” said Twaij by telephone. “The situation here is dire. We have women and children crying because they’re scared and confused.”
Twaij added: “It’s very cold now, people are fighting over blankets because there weren’t that many to give out. Police didn’t want it to become another refugee camp so they haven’t allowed tents to go up.”
A spokeswoman for Médecins Sans Frontières, which also has a doctor on the ground, said the logjam occurred because there is not enough space at a newly opened refugee camp over the border. Sophie-Jane Madden said on Tuesday: “About 8,000 people crossed yesterday from Serbia to Croatia. Only 3,000 can be accommodated in the camp, which leaves many people sleeping outside in the cold [at the border], including women, children and elderly.”
Once inside Croatia, refugees are being shunted on to northern Europe as quickly as possible. Despite Hungary’s rhetoric, and despite constructing a new fence along the Serbo-Hungarian border, Hungarian officials have bowed to the inevitable and are now allowing refugees to be bussed in from Croatia and onwards to Austria.
Nearly 500,000 people mainly fleeing wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have reached European shores by sea this year. Despite their best efforts no government has been able to stop their onwards march towards the countries of northern Europe. Europe’s leaders are gathering again on Tuesday and Wednesday in another attempt to agree a way of sharing the refugee numbers proportionally among all members of the EU.
But many countries are wary of agreeing to any deal, leading the UN to warn that the continent’s unity is at risk. Governments fear that the influx of refugees, though still tiny in comparison to the EU’s total population, will alter the fabric of European society.
Though it has ultimately allowed refugees to continue to cross its territory, Hungary’s parliament on Monday enacted new legislation that grants officials the power to use rubber bullets against refugees, and to search private residences thought to be sheltering undocumented foreigners.