Thousands of asylum seekers have become trapped on two Balkan borders as bottlenecks choked a new route towards western Europe, with many stuck in conditions that the United Nations refugee agency called “awful and hellish”.
The worst situation developed at Berkasovo on Serbia’s border with Croatia, where thousands stood for almost 24 hours in remote, rain-lashed fields of knee-deep mud, unable to move forward or back as Serbian buses continued to deliver new arrivals.
“It’s absolute chaos. There are at least 4,000 people here, more and more are coming, and very few are being allowed into Croatia,” said Jan Pinos, a Czech volunteer on the scene at Berkasovo.
“There are a few people from the aid agencies – but very few. We asked Serbian police to help and they did nothing . . . The Serbian government absolutely does not care about this place. It is a shame on Serbia.”
Mr Pinos said it was by far the worst situation he had seen in several weeks of volunteering at trouble spots along the so-called Balkan route for migrants, most of whom are from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflict zones.
“Last night there were fights, with knives and sticks. We jumped in and managed to calm the situation down, but this is all too much for 30 Czech volunteers to deal with – this is a situation for the government and army,” Mr Pinos said.
“People are frustrated and have no support or information. It has been raining heavily all day, people are cold and sick, including babies. Serbian police won’t let people move back, and Croatian police won’t let them go forward. We need big tents to protect people from the rain – it’s close to total collapse here.”
Melita Sunjic, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, described the conditions at Berkasovo as “awful and hellish”.
Yesterday evening, local media reports said migrants were being allowed to cross into Serbia – alleviating congestion for at least a few hours.
The trigger for the latest bottleneck was Hungary closing a fence on its border with Croatia to block migrants on Friday night, just as it did in September on its Serbian frontier.
Croatia was then forced to send all the migrants – most of whom want to get to Germany – to tiny Slovenia, which in turn puts them on buses to Austria. Slovenia says it will only accept a maximum of 2,500 or so migrants a day, however, in line with the numbers that Austria says it will accept, so as to prevent a huge backlog of people building up in the former Yugoslav state of two million.
Croatia sent buses and trains carrying more than 5,000 migrants to its border with Slovenia yesterday, however, according to Bostjan Sefic, state secretary at Slovenia’s interior ministry.
“Croatia is ignoring our pleas, our plans,” he said.
Hundreds of people also waited for hours in teeming rain to cross from Croatia into Slovenia, with little or no help from state or non-governmental groups.
Ranko Ostojic, Croatia’s interior minister, dismissed Slovenia’s complaints and accused it of reneging on earlier pledges over how many migrants it would take.
“On the first day, they said they will allow 8,000. The figure turned to 5,000 in 24 hours, and then to 2,500. In the end, it became zero,” he said.
Serbia also defended its handling of the crisis, which has generated considerable sums for bus and taxi operators who ferry migrants across the country – in Croatia and Slovenia, by contrast, the state pays for their transport.
“Let’s not blame Serbia when the entire EU is turning its gaze from what’s happening here,” said Aleksansdar Vulin, Belgrade’s minister for migration issues.