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News 18 Sep 15

Croatia Border Closure Alarms Balkan Neighbours

Countries across the Western Balkans are drawing up their contingency plans after Croatia shut its border, claiming its capacity to receive people had been exceeded.

BIRN team
BIRN
Refugees boarding a train in Tovarnik, on the border with Serbia on Friday. | Photo by BETA/HINA/Damir Sencar

 

After more than 13,300 refugees from Syria and Iraq entered Croatia from Serbia on Wednesday and Thursday, Croatia temporarily closed the border with Serbia on Thursday night. The biggest border passing, Batrovci, is still open for traffic.

Croatia's Minister of Interior, Ranko Ostojic, on Thursday urged refugees to stay in their reception centres in Serbia, Macedonia and Greece, since the capacities for receiving refugees in Croatia were full.

There are seven refugee centres in Croatia, the latest one being at the Zagreb Trade Fair.

The refugee centre in Beli Manastir in north-eastern Croatia is already overloaded, with 11,000 refugees and a lack of regular access to drinking water. In desperation, 200 refugees attempted to enter Hungary during the night, but were returned by the Hungarian police.

Some refugees are becoming desperate in their desire to get to Slovenia and Western Europe, even willing to pay a fortune for transport.

However, Slovenia is not allowing the majority of refugees to enter the country and allowed only 150 to enter on Thursday night.

Additionally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban warned on Friday that Hungary will build a new fence on the border with Croatia, similar to one finished this week on the border with Serbia.

Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic on Friday said that while Croatia honoured humanitarian standards, it also “sticks to the rules” in registering all refugees.

Nevertheless, she rejected claims that the refugees were a security risk, adding: “Terrorists do not operate in punctured boats across the Mediterranean, but in planes in business class”.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told a press conference that Croatia had shown "that it has heart, but also brains", adding that it would not close the border for good or build a fence, but will also not become "the so-called hotspot for refugees in the EU while its neighbours are closing their borders".

President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic criticized the process of receiving refugees on Thursday, saying that national security should be the priority. She asked the chief of general staff of the Croatian armed forces to raise the level of urgency.

Defence Minister Ante Kotromanovic said in reply that the situation was not that dramatic, but insisted that the military were ready for “the protection of national interests”.

A session of National Security Council, highest coordinating state security body, is scheduled for Friday. Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, the President and all other ministers will then discuss the issue.

Serbian politicians meanwhile said they were appalled by Croatia’s action and by that of the EU. President Tomislav Nikolic said on Friday that the EU had put the entire burden of the refugee crisis on Serbia and that it was not fair or sustainable.

“If anyone in Europe is thinking seriously about safety and security and about the survival of the continent, it is time to finally say what will happen, and then this should be implemented by all EU member states,” Nikolic said in Belgrade.

He also said that while EU members were being selfish, Serbia is not, and will continue to help the refugees for as long as possible.

Labour Minister Aleksandar Vulin urged Croatia not to close its borders and international roads, or Serbia would be forced to protect its interests before international courts.

“We would like to warn Croatia and any other country that closing international roads is out of the question, and that we will seek to protect our economic and any other interests before international courts,” Serbia's Tanjug news agency quoted Vulin as saying on Thursday.

The minister said he wondered why Croatia was not capable of handling 6,000 refugees while 140,000 of them had peacefully passed through Serbia this year.

International trains from Serbia were stopped on Thursday evening at the border with Croatia, Serbian Railways announced on Friday. It is said that only 40 passengers were on the last train, four of them migrants.

Macedonia's parliament will discuss on Friday prolonging the emergency situation in the border region for another month, so that the military, dispatched there last month, can stay there to assist the police.

Meanwhile, officials in Bosnia and Herzegovina expressed concern that the refugees' route will now switch towards Bosnia.

Security Minister Dragan Mektic said that Bosnia could receive up to 5.000 people but that after those capacities were filled, it might close the borders.

“We are ready to offer transit... but on condition that there is a corridor,” he said, “For now, there is not even one migrant from this category who showed up on the border of Bosnia,” he added.

Mektic also said that there were plans to use old factories and barracks to use in case of a massive influx of refugees andthe government was ready to use some state budget reserves if needed, adding that there were no promises of any financial help from the European Commission.

“We are ready to close the borders that moment when we fill the capacities,” he said.

The deputy director of the Service for Foreigners' Affairs, Izet Nizam, on Friday said Croatia's border closure had created a blockage.

"By closing the border in the neighbouring state [Croatia], a blockade is being created and refugees cannot continue crossing towards EU countries. This is what we are afraid of ... that this blockage could shift the [refugee] route toward Bosnia," he said.

He said that there were two crossing points which refugees could use, one in the northeast, near Zvornik, or another in the south-eastern part of Bosnia, near the town of Trebinje.

Bosnian agencies have been present in the field in northeast Bosnia already for two months, overseeing how the situation with refugees is developing, Nizam said.

He and added that in coordination with the town of Bijeljina, accommodation has been prepared in the town for up to 700 people but that other Bosnian institutions will also have to engage if the refugee wave really reaches Bosnia.

The border crossings in the north could be more challenging for refuges due to the waters of the River Drina, which form the border between Bosnia and Serbia there.

Eventual crossings in the south would be more difficult to control because of the land layout and sparse population.

Although not hit by the refugee wave, Montenegro is drafting a formal plan in case of a possible detour in the route taken by refugees towards Western Europe.

Labour minister Zorica Kovacevic said on Friday that the centre for asylum seekers in the capital Podgorica is the only place where they can be sheltered.

“Children with their mothers and vulnerable groups would be placed in the asylum centre and in Podgorica we have an alternative place to accommodate up to 300 refugees," Kovacevic said.

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