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Thousands of refugees stranded as Balkans struggle with backlog

Hungarian border closing and Slovenian immigration limits slow down movement of refugees

Thousands of beleaguered refugees, including many women and children, have spent a night in rain and cold in the Balkans as the countries of the region quarrel over how to handle the large influx of people.

Slovenia imposed a daily limit of 2,500 people, forcing fellow European Union-member Croatia to also ration entry from Serbia. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said Sebia was hosting more than 10,000 refugees on Monday, with more on the way.

“It’s like a big river of people, and if you stop the flow, you will have floods somewhere. That's what's happening now,” UNHCR spokesman Melita Sunjic said from the Serbia-Croatia border, where about 2,000 people were stranded in desperate and deteriorating conditions.

Groups of refugees fought with each other in the morning, aid workers said, after a night spent under open skies lashed by autumn wind and rain. “Open the gate, open the gate!” they chanted, their passage barred by lines of Croatian police who on Monday erected an improvised fence to control access.

Slovenia found itself dragged into the path of the greatest migration of people in Europe since World War Two after Hungary sealed its border with Croatia to refugees on Friday.

A country of two million people bordering Hungary, Italy, Austria and Croatia, Slovenia said it would only allow in as many as it could register, accommodate and send on to Austria. It said Austria had limited its own intake, something Vienna denied. Most refugees want to reach Germany, which for the moment is letting them enter.

What initially looked like a smooth and well-coordinated response by fellow ex-Yugoslav republics Slovenia and Croatia quickly broke down into the kind of discord and disarray that has characterized Europe’s response to the hundreds of thousands reaching its shores by boat across the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, many of them Syrians fleeing war.

Hungary’s right-wing government says the mainly Muslim migrants pose a threat to Europe’s prosperity, security and “Christian values,” and has sealed its borders with Serbia and Croatia with a steel fence and new laws that rights groups say deny refugees their right to seek protection.

The European Union has agreed a plan, resisted by Hungary and several other ex-Communist members of the bloc, to share out 120,000 refugees among its members, a small proportion of the 700,000 people the International Organization for Migration (IOM) projects will reach Europe’s borders from the Middle East, Africa and Asia this year.

It is also courting Turkey with the promise of money, easier EU travel for Turks and “re-energized” accession talks if Ankara tries to stem the flow of migrants across its territory.

In Croatia, about 1,800 people were halted on a train short of the Slovenian border, where Slovenian police barred access with an improvised fence. They disembarked and walked along the tracks, wrapped in raincoats or plastic sheeting against the rain.

Around 150, mainly families with children, were allowed to cross the frontier, the rest spent the night in the open, warming themselves around open fires. Slovenia accused Croatia of sending more, unannounced, on Monday morning.

“Yesterday the Croatian side stopped answering our phone calls so we do not know how many migrants to expect, which is making our work very difficult,” Slovenian Interior Minister Vesna Gyorkos Znidar told a news conference on Monday.

Her Croatian counterpart, Ranko Ostojic, told reporters in Croatia: “Slovenia first said it could receive up to 8,000 migrants (daily), then 5,000, then 2,500 and now it has been reduced to zero. It would mean that the whole burden is being left to Croatia.”

Upwards of 5,000 people are flowing daily across Balkan borders further south, from Greece into Macedonia and Serbia, both former Yugoslav republics with barely the money or resources to cope.

“Overnight everything here collapsed, people were fighting with clubs, arguing; there are no shelters,” said Jan Pinos, the head of a group of Czech aid volunteers on the Serbian-Croatian border. “The Serbian authorities have failed to secure and take care of this place,” he told Reuters.

Wire services

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