Federico Scoppa / AFP / Getty Images

Tempers fray at Croatian transit camp as EU leaders try to end chaos

Elusive solution to European refugee crisis could see voluntary absorption of newcomers by reluctant states

OPATOVAC, Croatia — Refugees at a new transit camp in Croatia scuffled with police on Tuesday as the country struggled to cope with a crisis that has set neighboring states at loggerheads before emergency talks among top European Union officials.

Interior ministers of the EU’s 28 nations were meeting on Tuesday to discuss border and asylum systems that have splintered with the arrival of more than 500,000 refugees this year. On Wednesday the bloc’s leaders will gather for what has been called the last opportunity to bring order to the growing chaos. European ministers on Tuesday approved a partial refugee relocation plan for settling 120,000 people.

Croatia now finds itself on the main Balkan route for refugees heading from Turkey to Western and Northern Europe as tens of thousands of people divert west to bypass a 13-foot-high, 109-mile-long fence that Hungary built along its border with Serbia.

On Sunday night, the first refugees arrived at a new transit camp at Opatovac in eastern Croatia, through which the country hoped to regulate the flow of thousands of people crossing daily from Serbia on their way to fellow EU states Hungary and Slovenia.

The system veered toward collapse Tuesday morning, however, as Croatian police shoved back frustrated migrants who had slept outside on the ground, waiting for many hours for access to a facility they had no desire to enter.

“We just want to move on, to keep going. Why do they make us do this?” said Mohammed, who waited outside the camp for six hours after walking about 7 miles from the border with Serbia because buses provided by Croatia had room only for women and children.

“They told us it would be a quick process, some food and water and rest and then we go on to Hungary and Austria. But it is bad here,” said Mohammed, who declined to give his surname because he said he feared for repercussions for his relatives in the Syrian port city of Latakia.

“Many people want to just walk farther. They are tired and have no patience for this,” he said, as scores of men streamed along the country road from Serbia to the camp and a few set off to try and find their own way to Hungary.

After chaotic scenes took place last weekend at the Tovarnik train station on the border with Serbia, where thousands of refugees fought to board trains to take them north and west, Croatia is now busing them from Tovarnik to the Opatovac camp, registering them and giving them food and water, then taking them by bus and train to the border with Hungary.

The process is intended to manage and slow the flow of refugees into Austria and then Germany — the desired destination for most — but people who have been on the road for weeks are angered and unsettled by the camp system.

“We want to go! We want to go!” refugees chanted this morning as some jumped over the perimeter fence into the camp and others jumped out, unsure which route would be quicker.

Croatian police sought to impose order by dividing waiting refugees into groups, according to nationality. When one man appeared to faint and collapsed on the ground, police carried him into the camp and, apparently suspecting a ruse to jump the line, pushed back his companions who sought to follow them inside.

More than 30,000 refugees have entered Croatia from Serbia in the past week, prompting furious Croatian leaders to close six of seven border crossings with Serbia in a bid to pressure it into sending refugees elsewhere.

“Mix it up a little. Send them a bit to Hungary and Romania,” said Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic.

Serbian officials say the closures are costing Serbia millions of dollars a day, and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic gave the EU a deadline of Tuesday afternoon to make Croatia reopen the crossings. In a minor concession, Croatia said it would open a border crossing only to Serbian trucks carrying perishable goods.

“This is Croatia’s brutal attack on Serbia and an attempt to destroy the Serbian economy,” declared Vucic. “This is a scandal of international proportions. Croatia has breached all European agreements and directives.”

‘Mix it up a little. Send them a bit to Hungary and Romania.’

Zoran Milanovic

prime minister, Croatia

The crisis is opening rifts between states along the Balkan route, with Serbia, Croatia and Romania lambasting Hungary over its fence and Hungary responding with a fierce defense, saying the influx of mostly Muslim refugees is a threat to Europe’s security and traditional Christian values and identity.

“They’re not just banging on the door. They’re breaking the door down on top of us,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban told parliament on Monday, when it voted to give the army broad powers to combat illegal migration.

“Our borders are in danger, our way of life built on respect for the law. Hungary and the whole of Europe is in danger,” he said, warning that refugees were “overrunning” a continent that is “rich but weak — the worst possible combination.”

Hungary and other Central European states have rejected proposals for all EU members to take a fixed quota of refugees, under a plan championed by Germany, which is willing to take 1 million refugees this year.

“I want to confirm that both the interior minister and myself … will unequivocally reject any effort to introduce a permanent mechanism of refugee redistribution,” Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said Tuesday.

“We also reject the introduction of quotas,” he added, before EU interior ministers met to try to hammer out a solution to the crisis that could be presented to EU leaders when they gather on Wednesday.

Whispers from EU diplomats suggest a compromise may be reached, with states taking refugees on a voluntary rather than compulsory basis, tightening border security on the EU’s southern edge, boosting funding to countries closer to conflict zones to help keep refugees there and separating economic migrants from refugees and sending them home.

“If we fail to find the right solution in the long term, the migrant crisis could truly threaten the existence of the European Union,” Slovenia’s Prime Minister Miro Cerar said on Tuesday. “But I am not a pessimist. I believe that we will find joint measures,” he said. 

The United Nations refugee agency warned the EU that it must come up with a bold and comprehensive plan now to solve Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.

“A relocation program alone, at this stage in the crisis, will not be enough to stabilize the situation,” the agency’s spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said Tuesday. “This may be the last opportunity for a coherent European response to manage a crisis that is increasing suffering and exploitation of refugees and migrants and tension between countries.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter