Tiny Slovenia struggles with new role in refugee crisis

Balkan crossroads calls on army and EU for help as Croatia funnels migrants west

"Not down there!" the lady from Rigonce shouted, her hands thrust out as if ready to shove the car back from the Croatian border and deeper into the safety of Slovenia.

"They are coming from there – begunci – and police. Go back!"

The refugees were indeed coming up the lane, but at funereal pace and in perfect order, between a railway line and sodden fields made glossy by days of rain.

Behind a police car and two police horses, they walked in slow procession carrying children, small rucksacks and plastic bags, swaddled in grey blankets and blue plastic ponchos handed out by aid workers somewhere farther east.


All were cold, wet and weary, after spending days and nights moving through drenching Balkan storms that are growing fiercer and more frequent as autumn slides into winter.

Many had endured what experienced volunteers described as the worst conditions they had seen on the migrants' "Balkan route", when thousands of people were stuck in a quagmire between Serbia and Croatia overnight on Sunday and most of Monday.

This group of several hundred people had been put on a train from eastern Croatia at 2am on Tuesday, and arrived at the Slovenian border four hours later.

Border delays

After being blocked by police at the frontier for some five hours, they now walked obediently between the lead police car and two chestnut horses, and four greys that brought up the rear ahead of several army-green four-wheel-drives.

Either side of the migrants, in case they made a dash across the fields towards the thickly wooded hills far to their left, or along the rail tracks that hemmed them in on the right, walked police in body armour and military police.

But there was no sign of trouble from the bedraggled, mud-spattered travellers, except for a few children who still had the energy to chase and tease each other, and to pester their parents about whether they were nearly “there” yet.

As at most points on their voyage towards western Europe, no one had told the migrants exactly where the next "there" was – and so they just walked on between the men in uniform, hoping they were moving in the general direction of Germany, or perhaps Sweden or the Netherlands.

The locals watched them pass, not hostile but curious to finally put faces to a European refugee crisis that has been drawing closer to Slovenia for months.

A few villagers waved at the many children making their way along the road – stomping, skipping, weaving, slouching – and the children waved back.

Abal Hakam al-Wardi was travelling from Syria with his brother, who had two small children strapped to his chest and back, as they and hundreds of others walked a few kilometres from the border to a makeshift camp in the village of Dobova.

“He is a dentist and I am a maths teacher. We come from Deir el-Zour, where Daesh is now,” Abal Hakam said, using another name for Islamic State.

“The children need school. In Syria now there is no school. There is only destruction. If you are not with Daesh [IS], then . . . ”

He finished his sentence by drawing a finger across his throat, before adding: “Life has stopped in Syria. There is nothing there now.”

By the time the migrants reached Dobova, a warm sun was cheering their spirits and, minutes after police ushered them into the camp and closed a rusty gate, they had draped the perimeter fence with rain-soaked clothes that could finally dry out.

Four Iranians stood by the fence discussing where their journey may take them.

"Germany, Holland, England – I have family in all these places," said Amin (45), an oil engineer from the city of Ahvaz.

“We have come to Europe for a better life,” added his friend Ermia (23) from Tehran, who said he was a musician and, like his three companions, a Christian.

"We just want freedom. There is no freedom in Iran today."

At a bigger – and extremely overcrowded – camp seven kilometres away at Dobova, police patrolled with guard dogs as a helicopter clattered overhead, and six armoured vehicles of Slovenia’s military police sat on the road nearby.

Slovenian officials say its army may be deployed to guard its borders, and called for help from the EU and neighbouring states to cope with the migrant influx.

The government has accused Croatia of sending far more migrants to Slovenia than it can cope with – some 19,500 since Friday, when Hungary sealed its southern border and caused migrants to travel en masse through Slovenia for the first time.

European solidarity

“From Slovenia’s perspective, European solidarity is at stake,” the government said on Tuesday.

“It is delusional to expect a country with a population of two million to stop, regulate and resolve what much bigger member states have failed to do.”