Antonio Bronic / Reuters

Thwarted by closed border, refugees head for Croatia

EU member denounces anti-refugee moves by Hungary, says it will allow new arrivals to pass

KANJIZA, Serbia — For the Serbian bus driver and his bosses, a day of easy money was suddenly becoming complicated — but potentially even more lucrative than expected.

Just as the driver was closing the doors on his bus, with about 60 refugees crammed inside, to rumble off on a 10-mile trip from their makeshift camp in Kanjiza to the border with Hungary at Horgos, his passengers revolted — or rather, announced they wanted to go separate ways.

“They said they wanted to go to Hungary, and now some say they want to go to Croatia instead,” the driver shouted as he stormed off the bus and left his mostly Syrian travelers to debate the respective merits of their favored routes.

Mohammed Zirk, white jacket, details plans to fellow refugees.
Dan McLaughlin

On board, the most recent of hundreds of thousands of refugees to trek this year through the Balkans toward Western Europe realized Hungary was now closed to them and argued whether to wait — in the hopes of it reopening — or to blaze a new trail farther west.

“Hungary is blocked, but Croatia is open. We must think and act fast, before Croatia closes too,” said Mohammed Zirk, a soft-spoken but determined Syrian, who had traveled far with 20 compatriots who acknowledged him as their leader.

One of his companions opened Google Maps on a smartphone, and half a dozen faces huddled around it. They found Kanjiza and followed the curves of a country road to nearby Horgos, where Hungary closed its border with Serbia on Sunday night as part of a crackdown on refugees entering illegally.

With a couple of flicks, the map expanded to take in the rest of northern Serbia, southern Hungary and, to the west, Croatia and beyond it Slovenia. Near the Serbia-Croatia border, there appeared the village of Sid — a new name to feature in Europe’s worst post–World War II refugee crisis, which has opened a deep rift between Germany and its liberal allies on one side and hardline states like Hungary on the other.

‘Hungary is blocked, but Croatia is open. We must think and act fast, before Croatia closes too.’

Mohammed Zirk

refugee from Syria

With Hungary’s border now blocked by a razor-wire-topped steel fence — patrolled by thousands of police supported by the army and helicopter surveillance — the road into Croatia through Sid now looks like a lifeline for tens of thousands of refugees making their way north along the Balkan route.

“We knew this road through Hungary, because so many people have gone this way,” said Mohammed Manle, a 39-year-old from Aleppo, Syria. “My brothers went this way a few months ago, and now they wait for us in Germany. The other road, this new way, is unknown for us. It is difficult to be the first to go this way.”

He is traveling with his mother, who has cancer, his pregnant wife and their young son. “I just want to get into Hungary, so we can rest,” he said. “I don’t care about giving my fingerprints, I just want Hungary to let us in. Later, we can move on and be with my brothers in Germany.”

Most refugees try to cross through Hungary without registering and giving fingerprints, because they fear EU rules that require asylum seekers to remain or be returned to the first member state that they reach. Although Greece is also an EU member, its asylum system is so decrepit that no one is sent back there.

Europe is deeply divided over how to handle the current crisis, with German-led calls for all EU states to take quotas of refugees being rejected by Hungary and other Central European countries, whose leaders have called the mostly Muslim refugees a threat to the continent’s security and identity.

Serbia denounced Hungary for closing its borders to refugees, warning of a possible humanitarian crisis if large numbers of them are stuck on the Serbian side as autumn closes in. Croatia did the same as the first buses of refugees arrived from Serbia today.

“We are ready to accept and direct those people — their religion and color of skin is completely irrelevant — to where they apparently wish to go, Germany and Scandinavia,” said Croatia’s Prime Minister Zoran Milanović. "I don't approve of the policy of Budapest. I consider it harmful and dangerous. Not that the walls that are being erected will stop anyone, but they are also sending a horrible message. A fence in Europe in the 21st century is not an answer but a threat.”

“They will be able to pass through Croatia, and we will help. We’re getting ready for that possibility,” he added.

A few hundred refugees crossed today from Sid in Serbia to Tovarnik in Croatia, and most are expected to travel about 200 miles to Slovenia, then to nearby Austria and then to Germany. It is not yet clear whether Croatia will provide trains and buses to take refugees across the country.

“Everyone is talking about Croatia now, and we are thinking about going there. But we heard there are mines on the border,” said Majid Dababo, another Syrian at Kanjiza. “We are legal travelers. We have our passports. But we want to be safe.”

The information that Dababo and his three companions read on their smartphones was correct: Land mines still litter remote parts of the Croatia-Serbia border — a legacy of the war from 1990 to ’95 — but the Zagreb government sent experts there today to ensure that high-risk areas are clearly marked.

“It’s decided. We’re going to Croatia,” Zirk declared at the Kanjiza camp.

The bus driver told him to get a group of 60 people together and a bus would arrive in 15 minutes. It would cost them 21 euros ($24) each for the three-hour ride to Sid — a healthy premium on the short 5-euro ride to Horgos. A second bus would take another group as planned to Horgos, where well over 1,000 people waited in the hot sun today in the hope that Hungary would reopen the border.

As Zirk and companions prepared to board their bus for Croatia, one of them punched a defiant fist into the late-summer air. “We are opening a new road,” he said, laughing. “We are heroes.”

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