Tuesday 20 February 2018

Migrants enter Slovenia after Hungary border closes

Migrants walk towards Hungary after disembarking from a train in Botovo, on the Croatia-Hungary border (AP)
Migrants walk towards Hungary after disembarking from a train in Botovo, on the Croatia-Hungary border (AP)

Thousands of migrants have surged into Slovenia after Hungary sealed its border for their free flow.

The closure of Hungary's border with Croatia on Saturday redirected thousands of people - including women and small children soaked in rain - further west toward Croatia's border with Slovenia.

The small European Union-member state has limited capacity to process large numbers wishing to head towards richer European Union countries such as Germany, Austria or Sweden.

This could leave thousands stranded in Croatia and further east and south in Serbia and Macedonia - the countries on the so-called Balkan migrant corridor.

Several buses packed with migrants arrived in the Slovenian border town of Petisovci on Saturday from Croatia. A train carrying 1,800 people arrived to the border in the afternoon. Police said that after processing, most of them are transferred towards the Austrian border.

The UN refugee agency said Slovenia has the capacity to accept some 7,000 migrants a day. Slovenian officials said, however, that they can permit up to 2,500 people a day, and will allow in new groups only after previous groups leave the country.

UNHCR spokeswoman Caroline Van Buren said at Slovenia's border with Croatia on Saturday that "all is going well" as the first groups of migrants started arriving at the small Alpine nation.

"We have been in cold since two in the morning in Serbia," said Omar Thaqfa, 33, from Mosul in Iraq. "We were sitting in the street. Very cold. Inshallah, I am going to Germany."

Slovenia, with a population of two million, has said it would bolster border controls and create entry points for migrants to manage the influx, but would keep accepting migrants as long as Austria and Germany kept their borders open. Croatia has said it will close its border with Serbia if Slovenia does the same with Croatia.

Slovenia's government has cleared the way for the armed forces to assist police in managing the influx. Officials said the army would provide logistical support to the police, but will not have any authority over migrants.

"We are going to focus even more on safety and security and order so our country can function normally," Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said, adding that Slovenia is a transit country for migrants and if "destination countries begin adopting stricter measures at the border, Slovenia will follow suit."

Migrants had been transiting through Croatia to get to Hungary and then further west. But Hungary blocked that route after midnight when police pulled a barbed-wire fence over a passage on the border with Croatia where about 140,000 migrants have passed since mid-September.

Croatian interior minister Ranko Ostojic said Hungary's decision will not stop the flow of hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa who have been coming to Europe.

"Nobody can stop this flow without shooting," Mr 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 on Saturday 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 EU, unlike Hungary it is not part of the Schengen zone of passport-free travel. Slovenia is in the Schengen zone.

Over 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 newspaper 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 after just two weeks and would create a bigger disappointment that the problem has not been resolved.

"I am working with all my power for sustainable solutions, and 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 coastguard rescued 25 other migrants from the sea.

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.

Press Association

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