Croatia in threat to close Serbia border over further migration

President asks army to be ready to protect national borders from ‘illegal migration’

Busloads of migrants arrive at Serbia's border with Croatia and continue on foot towards the Croatian border, in the hopes of ultimately reaching Germany and other countries in western Europe. Video: Reuters


Croatia has said it will close its border with Serbia if another 8,000 migrants enter the newest EU member in one day, interior minister Ranko Ostojic said on Thursday.

“Croatia will close its border with Serbia if we witness again 8,000 migrants entering the country in one day,” he said.

He said there was no need for migrants to continue arriving to seek protection as Croatia had no capacity to receive them.

“Croatia is not interested to be a country where the migrants will seek what they can get in other countries where they are now,” he told reporters.

Some 9,000 migrants entered Croatia since early Wednesday following the closure of Hungary’s border with Serbia.

There were chaotic scenes in Croatia on Thursday of riot police trying to control thousands who have streamed in from Serbia.

President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic asked the army on Thursday to be ready, if necessary, to protect national borders from illegal migration, the state news agency Hina reported.

“Croatia’s president met the army chief of staff and required a higher level of alert and the army and to be ready, if need be, to protect the national borders from the illegal migration,” Hina reported.

Mr Ostojic earlier said Croatia would provide migrants with safe passage to reception centres around the capital, Zagreb, but that those not seeking asylum would be considered illegal immigrants.

“Croatia will not be able to receive more people,” Mr Ostojic told reporters in the town of Tovarnik on Croatia’s eastern border with Serbia.

“When we said corridors are prepared, we meant a corridor from Tovarnik to Zagreb,” he added, suggesting Croatia would not be allowing migrants simply to proceed northwards to Slovenia.

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 in Zagreb and elsewhere.

Authorities had earlier warned them to avoid walking in areas along the Serbian border that are still being de-mined after the country’s 1991-95 war.

Speaking earlier, Mr Ostojic said the country has the situation under control but warned that “if huge waves start coming through Serbia, we must consider different moves”.

Arduous route

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 on Tuesday and began arresting anyone caught trying to enter the country illegally.

The migrants are unlikely to stay long in Croatia. Most plan to move on, passing through Slovenia and then Austria en route to their final destination, which for most is Germany or Scandinavian countries. Croatian foreign minister Vesna Pusic said the country “cannot force anyone to stay”.

Both Slovenia and Austria reinstated border check-ups in anticipation of the refugee wave - and Hungary warned that it would consider building a wall on its border with Croatia.

Clashes between migrants and Hungarian riot police broke out on Wednesday afternoon after people frustrated at being blocked from the country pushed open a gate at the border with Serbia. Baton-wielding police responded with tear gas and water cannons, and migrants threw rocks and other objects at the police. Dozens were injured.

No solution

On Thursday, the European Union’s migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, urged Hungary to work with the bloc to alleviate the continent’s migration crisis and declared that walls and violence are no solution.

“The majority of people arriving in Europe are Syrians,” Mr Avramopoulos said at a news conference alongside Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto in Budapest.

“They are people in genuine need of our protection. There is no wall you would not climb, no sea you wouldn’t cross if you are fleeing violence and terror. I believe we have a moral duty (to) offer them protection.”

Hungary, in contrast, has been insisting that most of the people who have entered are economic migrants seeking better jobs.

Prime minister Viktor Orban has also said by keeping out Muslims, Hungarian police are defending “Europe’s Christian culture”.

Mr Avramopouls said he considered it a “Christian duty” to handle the migration crisis with compassion.

Overnight, Hungarian authorities positioned barbed wire and a new gate at the border where the clashes occurred near the Serbian village of Horgos.

Hundreds of migrants remained at the two Horgos border crossings on Thursday, but many are now heading towards the Croatian border. Serbian state TV said 70 buses transported people overnight to the border with Croatia.

In Paris, French authorities evacuated more than 500 Syrian and other migrants from tent camps and moved them into special housing.

Austria called for “new and better rules” on migration, urging a European Union summit on the issue as thousands of migrants streamed into Croatia in search of new routes to western Europe.

The influx into Croatia puts Slovenia next in line on the route to Austria and the chosen destination of most migrants, Germany.

Slovenian prime minister Miro Cerar, speaking after talks with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann in Ljubljana, said Slovenia would stick to the rules of Europe’s Schengen zone of border-free travel.

His government has said it will receive asylum requests, but not create a “corridor” for refugees to simply pass through Slovenia and into Austria.

“We need to deal with the problem where our (the EU’s) external borders begin,” Mr Faymann said.

The Hungarian response was widely condemned with UN general secretary Ban Ki-moon sharply rebuking Hungary for what he called its unacceptable treatment of people fleeing war.

Serbia’s prime minister accused Hungary of “brutal” and “non-European” behaviour and urged the EU to respond. “I call on the European Union to react, for its members to behave in line with European values,” Aleksandar Vucic told Serbian state television during a visit to the United States.

“If the EU does not react, we will find a way to protect our borders and European values as well,” he said. Serbia said it would send extra police to the border and try to distance migrants from the fence, as three Hungarian military Humvees mounted with guns stepped up security on the other side.

The Council of Europe human rights body said it had asked Hungary to explain its new legislation on the crisis.

Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, urged Hungarian authorities to ensure “unimpeded access” for people as they flee wars and persecution.

Migrants scattered through Balkan countries said they were seeking other routes, possibly through Croatia or Romania, which are in the EU though not in Schengen.

Croatia said it would send experts to its Serbian border to identify minefields from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the last time hundreds of thousands of displaced people marched across Europe.

The goal for most is Germany, which cut off trains from Austria on Wednesday to slow the flow of arrivals. Tens of thousands of migrants have rushed to Austria in recent days to cross before Hungary closed the border.

Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta evoked the continent’s darkest era when he addressed the Hungarian reaction.

“Fences, dogs, cops and guns: this looks like Europe in the 1930s. And did we solve the refugee problem with this? No, we didn’t,” he said. “Erecting a fence only throws the problem into Serbia, into Croatia, into Romania.”