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Serb buses provide refugees route away from Hungary border ‘hell’

Hundreds attempt to pile onto convoy on way to Croatia; Zagreb tensions rising

HORGOS, Serbia — The bus had filled to capacity in seconds, and now refugees young and old peered out of windows on both decks, saying an unfond farewell to the Hungarian border and looking ahead to a new and unexpected turn on the Balkan route to Western Europe.

But the surge of people through the Serbian bus’s doors would not stop. Hundreds more refugees tried to join the first ride away from the dismal border, on what would be the latest part in a long trek from warzones and cripplingly poor states in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan.

A local official, built and dressed like a nightclub bouncer, shouted assurances that more transport was on the way, and helped a flustered policeman shove back bodies and pry hands off the door until it finally closed and the bus trundled away.

“We cannot stay here. It is really hell,” said Sahir Ali. The Syrian was standing on what is usually the fast lane of a stretch of the E-75 highway, which runs along the length of Europe from Finland in the north to Greece in the South.

The part where Ali found himself, close the Serbia-Hungary border, has become a makeshift refugee camp, covered in tents, foam mats, discarded bottles and food packets.

Behind him stood the heavy metal gates that now block this major route from Serbia to Hungary, and on each side for dozens of miles a 13-foot-high fence and coils of razor wire stretched away, glinting in the strong sunshine.

“When we left Syria, we heard Germany would take one million people, and other countries would also take many people: Sweden, France the Netherlands and others. Why won’t Hungary let us go through if other countries are not against us?”

Hungary completed the 109-mile border fence earlier this week and introduced tough criminal sentences for anyone caught breaching or damaging the barrier, as part of what Budapest has attempted to frame as a defense of Europe’s security and traditional Christian identity.

On Wednesday, tension at the fence erupted into violence, when refugees hurled rocks and bottles at Hungarian riot police who replied with tear gas and water cannon, as anti-terrorist special forces stood watch beside armored vehicles.

Dozens of people were hurt in the clashes and Hungarian officials said 29 people had been arrested, including a man they called an “identified terrorist”.

“We have to leave here now,” said Ali on Thursday. Surrounded by travelling companions from Syria, he added: “If we cannot go, there will be much bigger trouble here.”

Uncertainty, hunger and tiredness, exacerbated by the intense heat rippling off the highway, stretched nerves and patience to a breaking point: a small scuffle broke out in the crowd over missing money, as the wait for more buses stretched on.

After more than one hour standing in the blazing sun, and wondering if they had missed their chance to leave, half a dozen buses arrived and the refugees filed on in orderly fashion. Each adult paid the Serbian bus company the equivalent of $35 for the three-hour journey to the Croatian border.

“Little kids go free, if they can sit on someone’s knee,” the ticket-seller said, seemingly proud of his firm’s generosity.

As the highway started to empty, and refugees camping in surrounding fields and on a nearby road gathered in the hope that more buses would appear, as military and then police helicopters hovered low over the border.

Authorities in Hungary have defended the measures employed to keep refugees out. Janos Lazar, chief of staff for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, declared that the “assertive, uncompromising defense of the border has visibly held back human trafficking, and forces them to change direction. That was the aim of the entire action.”

In achieving its objective, Hungary has faced fierce criticism from neighboring states that deplore a border fence that Orban plans to extend and from international organizations that question the legality and morality of his crackdown.

The latest salvo aimed at Orban came from Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the United Nations human rights chief, who on Thursday accused Hungary of “clear violations of international law” and “deplored the xenophobic and anti-Muslim views that appear to lie at the heart of current Hungarian government policy.”

Croatia has said it would allow refugees to enter its territory and continue their westward voyage, and more than 6,500 people arrived from Serbia in the last day.

The country’s open policy is already in danger of collapse, however.

Croatian riot police on the border with Serbia have struggled to control crowds of refugees waiting in fierce heat for buses to take them to reception centers.

And in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, police took up position today around a hotel housing hundreds of refugees, some of whom stood on balconies shouting "Freedom! Freedom!" and threw rolls of toilet paper from the windows.

With the main flow of the Balkan route now shifting west away from Hungary toward Croatia and Slovenia, it is not clear how either of those two former Yugoslav republics, both now members of the EU, will cope with the new arrivals.

Some 6,000 Croatian police have been deployed to its borders, to keep order during two weeks in which officials have said they expect more than 20,000 refugees to arrive — a figure that now looks like a major underestimate.

Croatia’s interior minister, Ranko Ostojic, said the country of 4.3 million would allow refugees to travel to reception centers around Zagreb but that people not seeking asylum would be considered illegal immigrants.

Seeing busloads of refugees arrive at Tovarnik, on Croatia’s border with Serbia, Ostojic announced today: “Croatia will not be able to receive more people.”

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