OVARNIK, Croatia — Croatia staggered Thursday as thousands of asylum seekers poured in from Serbia. Dozens were injured or trampled in a mad rush to get on the few buses and trains authorities could provide, and some police even stood behind trees to protect themselves from the melee.
The Balkan nation has suddenly become the latest hotspot in the 1,000-mile plus exodus toward Western Europe after Hungary sealed off its border Tuesday with a razor-wire fence and then used tear gas, batons and water cannons to keep the migrants out.
Croatia represents a longer and more arduous route into Europe but those fleeing violence in their homelands had little choice. Police said over 8,900 people had entered in the last two days.
After bus trips through Serbia, many migrants crossed fields on foot to enter Croatia, where dozens of police directed them to trains and buses heading to refugee centres. Authorities warned them to avoid walking in areas along the Serbian border that were still being demined from the country’s 1991-95 war.
Early on things were calm, but they soon got out of control.
Hundreds of angry asylum seekers pushed through police lines in the eastern Croatian town of Tovarnik after waiting for hours in the hot sun, demanding to be allowed to move on toward Western Europe. An Associated Press photographer saw one man collapse on the ground and dozens injured.
More than 2,000 men, women and children had been stuck at the local train station for hours. When buses finally arrived, groups charged toward them, overwhelming Croatian police. The situation calmed down but some migrants moved off on foot, with police unable to stop them.
Hundreds of other asylum seekers came over a Danube River bridge to the northern Croatian town of Batina after being bused there by Serbs, overwhelming the local police.
The migrants are unlikely to stay long in Croatia, where they must be registered. They can ask for asylum in Croatia, but almost all plan to travel on, passing through Slovenia and then Austria en route to Germany or the Scandinavian countries.
“I don’t want to be registered in Croatia. I want to be out of here as soon as possible,” said Khalid Nasr from Damascus, Syria. “I want to go to Germany and nothing will stop me.”
Fearing a surge of migrants from Croatia, Austria and Slovenia called Thursday for an urgent, all-EU response. Both have reinstated border checks.
“We are being put to test,” said Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann. “This time we must prove that we don’t want a Europe in which everyone will try to shift their problems to others’ shoulders.”
Hungary has stirred up more political angst in Europe by saying it plans more fences along its borders, this time with Romania and Croatia. Romania responded with alarm Thursday after Hungary said that fence would be 70 kilometres long (43 1/2 miles).
Clashes between migrants and Hungarian riot police broke out Wednesday afternoon after people frustrated at being blocked from the country pushed open a gate at the Horgos border crossing with Serbia. Baton-wielding police responded with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons, and migrants threw rocks and other objects at them. Dozens were injured.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto lashed out Thursday against the strong criticism the country has faced internationally — including comments from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who called Hungary’s response unacceptable.
“I find it bizarre and shocking that certain esteemed international figures have stood on the side of people who for hours were throwing stones and pieces of cement at the Hungarian police,” Szijjarto said. “And I’d also like to make it very clear, no matter what criticism I receive, that we will never allow such aggressive people to enter Hungary. Not even for transit purposes.”
Hungarian police said they detained 22 people, including one Syrian man who they said was an organizer at the Horgos clash who is now suspected of terrorism.
The European Union’s migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, declared Thursday that walls and violence are no solution and urged Hungary to work with the 28-nation bloc to alleviate the continent’s migration crisis.
“The majority of people arriving in Europe are Syrians,” Avramopoulos said at a news conference alongside Szijjarto in Budapest. “They are people in genuine need of our protection. There is no wall you would not climb, no sea you wouldn’t cross if you are fleeing violence and terror. I believe we have a moral duty (to) offer them protection.”
Hungary, in contrast, has been insisting that most are simply economic migrants seeking better jobs. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has also said that by keeping out Muslims, Hungarian police are defending “Europe’s Christian culture.”
Avramopoulos countered that he considered it a “Christian duty” to handle the migration crisis with compassion.
Overnight, Hungarian authorities positioned barbed wire and a new gate at the Serbian border near Horgos. Still, that did not deter everyone.
About 30 young Afghan men waited Thursday on the Serbian side for a chance to cross the razor-wire fence, although their chances appeared remote as Hungarian police officers patrolled nearby. Zahed Chakari, an 18-year-old from Kabul, said his group was waiting for instructions from their smuggler on what to do or where to go next.
“We will stay here until we cross the border. There is no alternative,” he said.
In Paris, meanwhile, French authorities evacuated more than 500 Syrian and other migrants from tent camps and moved them into special housing as the country steps up its efforts to deal with Europe’s migrant wave.
And at Turkey’s border with Greece and Bulgaria, 200 asylum seekers, many from Syria, protested Thursday in the northwestern province of Edirne, demanding to be let into Europe.
“Merkel! Merkel!” they chanting, referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has said European nations have a duty to protect those fleeing war at home.
Gec reported from Belgrade, Serbia. Associated Press writers Vanessa Gera and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary; Mike Corder in Roszke, Hungary; Dusan Stojanovic in Horgos, Serbia; and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
Radul Radovanovic And Jovana Gec, The Associated Press
©2015 The Canadian Press