Desperate refugees now flee through Croatia
Hungary tightens the screw further with first prosecutions of migrants
Published 17/09/2015 | 02:30
Migrants and refugees were forced to try a new route through Croatia into northern Europe yesterday after Hungary closed its border with Serbia and detained hundreds of what it termed "illegal immigrants".
"The number is rising. At the moment, 277 people have entered Croatia from Serbia," Ranko Ostojic, Croatia's interior minister, told parliament.
"It is clear that those people don't want to stay in Croatia," he added. Those heading to Croatia said they had been told to take the route by police.
"We heard that Hungary was closed, so the police told us we should come this way," said Amadou (35), from Mauritania in western Africa.
At least 100 were walking through fields across the border, according to a Reuters photographer, while 80 people crossed into Croatia after travelling by bus to the Serbian border town of Sid.
Refugees, many of whom were sleeping rough, told reporters they hoped to reach Germany, as bitter debates continue in Europe over how to handle the crisis.
In August, more than 156,000 people entered the European Union, compared with 280,000 for the whole of 2014. In total, more than half a million have entered the EU so far in 2015.
Croatian authorities were expecting migrants and refugees to use the country as a transit route, but it is not in the Schengen group of countries.
This means people in Croatia cannot cross over the border into other EU countries within the zone freely without passport and immigration controls.
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovi, the Croatian president, has called a meeting of the country's security council over the issue.
She said: "As the crisis is getting more complex every day, I have to warn once again on the migrant wave and its possible social, economic and security implications."
The prime minister said the country would give free passage to migrants and refugees as they make their journey to Scandinavia or Germany.
Zoran Milanovic said the country would accept people regardless of their race or religion.
"They will be able to cross Croatia and we have been working intensively on that. We are ready to accept and direct those people - their religion and skin colour are completely irrelevant - to where they apparently wish to go... Germany, Scandinavia."
Asylum-seekers could also go through Slovenia to Austria and then on to Germany. On Tuesday it was reported that Zagreb authorities had ordered more fingerprinting machines to register the arrivals.
Croatia's assistant minister for European Affairs, Maja Bakran Marcich, said the country would not allow people just to move through.
"They would be stopped and returned at the Slovenian and Hungarian borders in any case. We would accommodate people, register them and see if they wanted to stay in Croatia or move on.
"We could absorb the immediate wave and then we'd have to see. This is just the beginning."
Meanwhile, Hungary made the first arrests under tough new laws which punish "illegal border-crossing" or damaging the fence with prison terms of up to three years.
Of the 367 arrested by Hungarian police, 316 will be prosecuted for damaging a barbed-wire fence on the Serbian border and 51 for illegally entering Hungary. Four Iraqis were put on trial for "the crime of crossing the border illegally".
Hungary's hardline stance has been sharply criticised, with the UN refugee agency saying it could be in violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Despite the arrests, people continued to sneak into Hungary yesterday in a field close to the fence.
Yesterday morning, more than 1,000 refugees were unable to continue their journey to Europe via Greece and were stranded in Edirne, north-west of Turkey, while in Austria, selective controls of vehicles at three main border crossings with Hungary began.
Vienna could extend the controls, which mean people are asked for passports and other travel documents, to 10 crossings in the hope that it will create some order.
In Germany, a federal police spokesman for Baden-Wuerttemberg said the country would step up passport controls on its frontier with France.
He said: "We have stepped up controls, we are carrying out border checks as the situation requires. We are flexible regarding places and times as we carry out border checks." (© Daily Telegraph, London)