Saturday 18 November 2017

More misery for migrants as Hungary closes border

Refugees diverted overnight as Croatia is declared off-limits by Hungarian government, says Marja Novak

SHUT OFF: A Hungarian soldier walks past a fence put on the border with Croatia. Hungary’s right-wing government declared its southern frontier with Croatia off limits to migrants, blocking entry with a metal fence and razor wire
SHUT OFF: A Hungarian soldier walks past a fence put on the border with Croatia. Hungary’s right-wing government declared its southern frontier with Croatia off limits to migrants, blocking entry with a metal fence and razor wire

Marja Novak

Migrants streaming across the Balkans reached Slovenia yesterday, diverted overnight by the closure of Hungary's border with Croatia in the latest demonstration of Europe's disjointed response to the flow of people reaching its borders.

Hungary's right-wing government declared its southern frontier with Croatia off limits to migrants, blocking entry with a metal fence and razor wire just as it did a month ago on its border with Serbia.

Croatia began directing migrants west to Slovenia, which said some 300 had arrived and would be registered before continuing their journey to Austria and Germany, the preferred destination of the vast majority, many of them Syrians fleeing war.

But their movement had slowed visibly, with dozens of buses lined up at Serbia's border with Croatia through the night and into Saturday as Croatian police controlled their entry. Slovenia suspended rail traffic with Croatia.

Aid agencies are concerned about backlogs of migrants building in the Balkans, battered by autumn winds and rain as temperatures drop before winter.

Hungary said it had reinstated border controls on its frontier with Slovenia, effectively suspending Europe's Schengen system of passport-free travel. Both Slovenia and Hungary are part of the Schengen Area while Croatia is not.

A government spokesman said Budapest had taken the step because "migrants appeared" on the Slovenian side of the border.

Slovenia, a small country of two million people, says it can accommodate up to 8,000 migrants per day. Both Ljubljana and Zagreb say they will not restrict the flow so long as Austria and Germany keep their doors open.

The first 100 migrants in this new wave had reached Austria, a spokesman for the police in Austria's southeastern province of Styria, which borders Slovenia, said yesterday afternoon. Hundreds more were expected later in the day, he added.

Hungary says it is duty-bound to secure the borders of the European Union from mainly Muslim migrants threatening, it says, the prosperity, security and "Christian values" of Europe.

Budapest is among several ex-Communist members of the EU that oppose an EU plan to share out 120,000 refugees among its members. That is only a small proportion of the 700,000 migrants expected to reach Europe's shores by boat and dinghy from North Africa and Turkey this year, many of them fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

At a summit in Brussels on Thursday, the EU offered Turkey a possible €3bn in aid and the prospect of easier travel visas and "re-energised" talks on joining the bloc if it would help stem the flow of migrants across its territory.

But Hungary said this fell short of Budapest's demands, which include formation of a common force to protect the borders of Greece, where most migrants arrive across the Aegean Sea from Turkey before heading north through Macedonia and Serbia.

Asked what would happen if Germany was to close its doors, Croatia's interior minister warned of a "domino effect".

"It will be a lot of trouble for all countries and I cannot predict what will happen in this situation," Ranko Ostojic, speaking in English, told reporters at a migrant camp in the eastern Croatian village of Opatovac.

"They are risking their lives and nobody is able to stop this flow without shooting," Ostojic said, adding that further closure of frontiers for migrants would cause "a domino effect and lot of troubles for all countries" that are on the migrant route.

Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto announced the decision to close the border after a meeting of the national security cabinet on Friday.

Hungary decided to order the border clampdown after EU leaders who met on Thursday in Brussels failed to agree on a plan backed by Hungary to send EU forces to block migrants from reaching Greece.

Mr Szijjarto said in a statement yesterday that the government was defending Hungary and its citizens from the "mass wave of unidentified, uncontrolled migrants".

He has said normal border checkpoints with Croatia would remain open, though inspections will be tightened.

Although Croatia is also a member of the European Union, unlike Hungary it is not part of the Schengen zone of passport-free travel. Slovenia is in the Schengen zone.

More than 383,000 migrants have entered Hungary this year, nearly all passing through on their way to Germany and other destinations further west in the EU. The country clamped down on its border with Serbia with a similar razor-wire fence on September 15 and since then migrants have been taking a detour through Croatia to reach Hungary.

German chancellor Angela Merkel told Saturday's edition of the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Germany can control its borders but not close them completely - "that wouldn't even succeed with a fence, as the example of Hungary shows".

Thousands of new arrivals a day have stretched Germany's capacity to house refugees and other migrants.

But Mrs Merkel said she will not promise "false solutions" because they would not hold even for two weeks and would create bigger disappointment that the problem has not been resolved.

"I am working with all my power for sustainable solutions, so they don't depend on us Germans alone and will take time," she said.

Turkey's state-run news agency said 12 migrants have drowned after their boat sank off the Turkish coast in the Aegean sea.

The Anadolu Agency said the Turkish coast guard rescued 25 other migrants.

Greece's coast guard said four children drowned when a boat carrying migrants sank off the small island of Kalolimnos.

The group was trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos - an entry point for a majority of migrants making the journey from the nearby Turkish coast.

Sunday Independent

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