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As Croatia closes its border, where next for refugees?

AFP, Elvis Barukcic | Refugees and migrants walk on a dirt road close to the Serbia-Hungary border near the Northern Serbian town of Sid on September 16, 2015

Croatia became the latest in a string of countries to close its borders to migrants and refugees on Friday, a move that means the major land route through the Balkans is rapidly becoming closed off to those hoping to reach the EU.

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Croatia had initially said it would let people pass through freely on their way to Western Europe. But with a massive influx of 13,000 migrants entering the country since early Wednesday, Zagreb announced Thursday that it was closing seven of its eight crossing points with Serbia.

The country found itself at the centre of Europe’s migrant crisis after neighbouring Hungary sealed off its border with Serbia – formerly a key crossing on the heavily used migrant route through the Balkans and into the EU – earlier this week, shifting the flow of people to its southern neighbour.

“We cannot register and accommodate these people any longer,” Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told a press conference on Friday. “The European Union must know that Croatia will not become a migrant ‘hotspot’. We have hearts, but we also have heads.”

Other European nations, including Slovakia and Austria, have announced border controls of their own, while more are considering following suit.

‘Clandestine entry’

Where people will go next as they attempt to cross into the EU is uncertain, said Izabella Cooper of the EU’s border control agency Frontex.

Video: Refugees stranded at Croatian border

The closure may lead to the migrant flows simply being shifted to neighbouring countries in Eastern Europe, she said. At the same time, it could see an increasing number of refugees shunning the Balkan route altogether and trying to reach Europe by other means, such as across the central Mediterranean.

Border closures will also likely lead to a rise in “clandestine entry” and people-smuggling, she said, a scenario that could lead to more incidents like the one that shocked Europe last month when the bodies of dozens of migrants were discovered in an abandoned lorry in Austria.

“We believe that in some cases it will lead to an increase in people being hidden in trucks, buses, etc.,” Cooper told FRANCE 24.

"As long as there is a demand there will always be an offer, and smuggling is a very lucrative business,” said Cooper.

On the ground in Serbia, Melita Sunjic of the UN refugee agency UNHCR said that, for the time being, migrants were still being allowed to bypass the official border crossing to enter Croatia.

“Bus loads of people are arriving every 20 minutes at the moment,” she told FRANCE 24 from the Serbian-Croatian border town of Sid.

“People are being directed through a cornfield to the Croatian side and the police there are waving them through,” Sunjic said.

“My colleagues on the Croatian side say authorities there have said they will take the refugees to a train station.”

But where those trains may be heading is unclear. Croatia’s EU neighbour Slovenia, part of the EU’s Schengen zone and the next logical step for migrants heading West, has suspended all rail traffic with Croatia until further notice. There have been reports of migrants being stranded for hours at Croatian railway stations as trains remained at platforms.

Milanovic said Friday that Croatia was now planning on redirecting migrants back to Hungary, but they are unlikely to receive a warm welcome there either. Budapest’s right-wing government under Prime Minister Viktor Orban has taken one of the toughest anti-migrant stances among EU members.

As well as the border fence with Serbia, the country announced Friday that it had started building a similar barrier along parts of the Croatian border and plans to do the same on the border with Romania.

Building fences not the answer

Wherever the hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees attempting to reach the EU head next, one thing is almost certain: Closing borders will not make the problem go away.

“Governments must understand that closing borders and building fences do not address the cause of migration. The pressures will remain the same,” said Cooper.

“First you need to address the stabilisation in the countries of origin, to provide assistance for people in poorer countries, to dismantle the people-smuggling networks. Only then can you start to think about border controls.”

With the migrant crisis showing no signs of abating, the EU has been struggling to come up with a unified solution – something that aid agencies say is vital if any real progress is to be made.

An EU quota plan to share the burden has been ruled out by many Eastern European countries, while two potentially crucial EU meetings are due to take place next week.

“It is not enough to simply close a border here, open another one there,” Sunjic said. “All the European countries need to take their share of the responsibility.”

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