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Croatia closes border with Serbia as thousands of migrants arrive

Armend Nimani, AFP | Thousands of migrants arrived in Croatia on September 17, 2015, overwhelming local authorities

Croatia closed most of its border with Serbia Friday as it became the latest focal point in Europe’s migrant crisis, following a huge migrant influx. Meanwhile, Hungary announced that it is building a fence along its border with Croatia.

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There were emotional scenes in eastern Croatia as local people came to hand out food to migrants finally departing after a long wait near the Serbian border, with more than 11,000 migrants having entered the country since early Wednesday, according to the interior ministry.

Hungary came under heavy criticism this week for its treatment of migrants at its own border with Serbia as riot police fired tear gas and water cannon during several hours of clashes with rampaging migrants angry at being blocked from entering.

Hungary, which has been the transit route for over 180,000 migrants this year, has built a 3.5-metre fence on its frontier with Serbia and implemented a raft of immigration laws to clamp down on migration. This has diverted the flow of migrants towards Croatia and Slovenia this week.

On Friday, Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced that his country had begun constructing a fence also on the border separating with Croatia.

He said the fence – lining the critical 41-kilometre stretch of border where the two countries are not separated by a river – would be completed by the end of Friday.

“We must implement the same measures as on the Serbian-Hungarian border,” Orban said, adding that 600 soldiers are currently working on the fence, and that a further 500 will be deployed on Friday and 700 more over the weekend.

United Nations rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said Hungarian government policy was apparently being guided by "xenophobic and anti-Muslim views", while Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said: "This torture and non-European behaviour must stop."

Due to the Hungarian measures, Croatian authorities initially said they would let people pass through freely on their way to other EU countries, but Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic warned his country's resources for dealing with the influx were "limited".

"I neither want to nor can stop these people," Hina news agency quoted him as saying.
"If we can, we will register them; if there will be more of them, we will not be able to register them. We will do our best, but I cannot guarantee that we will be able to do so."

Chaotic day

Several hundred people were finally on their way to the Croatian capital Zagreb late Thursday after a chaotic day in which thousands were trapped for hours in the baking sun at a small rural train station at Tovarnik near the border, waiting for transport.

There were manic scenes as people barged their way onto the evening train at nearby Ilaca. Elderly women and babies had to be pulled out from the crush, though the situation calmed as people realised there was enough space onboard.

Local women showed up with food, water and baby supplies, and there were emotional farewells as the train finally pulled away, with cries of "We love you!" from the departing migrants. Croatian girls made heart signs with their hands and wiped away tears.

But piling on the pressure, Slovenia announced late Thursday it had stopped a train from Croatia carrying migrants, and later suspended all train traffic between the two countries.

Early Friday morning, however, a train left a Croatian border station for a Slovenian town, with police declining to comment on why it was granted access.

Hungary angrily rejected a growing chorus of criticism of its handling of Wednesday's clashes, which left 14 police injured.

Neighbours Greece, Serbia and Croatia joined the UN in blasting Hungary's use of water cannon and tear gas against migrants as "unacceptable".

But Hungary's Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto rejected the world's reading of the events as "bizarre", saying that "aggressive" migrants had been responsible for the violent clashes with police by throwing stones, sticks and plastic bottles.

"Hungary will defend its borders no matter what outrageous criticism it gets from whomever in the international political elite," Szijjarto said.

Emergency summit

In Brussels, EU President Donald Tusk said all 28 leaders of the bloc would next Wednesday hold an emergency summit on the continent's worst migration crisis since World War II.

The bloc is bitterly split over how to fairly distribute the migrants across the EU, and there are fears that Europe's vaunted Schengen agreement, which allows borderless travel between member states, could be in jeopardy.

Germany, Austria and Slovakia have all reimposed identity checks on parts of their borders, and Poland and the Netherlands are considering whether to follow suit.

Under a draft law seen by AFP on Thursday, Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere is seeking to toughen asylum laws by sending migrants back to the first European Union country they reached and by reducing benefits.

If passed, the law would represent a major reversal on Germany's easing of asylum laws for Syrians, a factor contributing to the massive influx that has left Germany expecting up to a million asylum seekers this year.

Meanwhile, in a sign of growing pressure on the EU's external borders, Bulgaria began deploying 1,000 troops to the Turkish frontier where several hundred people, mostly Syrians, spent a third day stuck near a border city.

French President Francois Hollande said late Thursday that he would use next week's emergency EU summit to ask Turkey to keep Syrian refugees on its soil until the war ends.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
 

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