A young boy looks at a police officer as his family cross the Croatian-Slovenian border in Rigonce on September 20, 2015
TANGIERS (MOROCCO) – No European country can get out of taking in refugees who have the right to asylum, French President Francois Hollande said Saturday, amid a growing row over how to fairly distribute a massive influx of migrants across the continent.
The re-distribution “must involve all European countries — no one can be exempt or we would no longer belong to the same union built on values and principles,” Hollande said during a visit to Morocco, ahead of Wednesday’s EU crisis summit on a contentious proposal to spread 120,000 refugees across member states.
LONDON — As key nations tighten their borders, thousands of migrants and asylum seekers hoping to enter Western Europe are now bottled up in the Balkans, placing precarious new burdens on a region of lingering sectarian divisions that is exceptionally ill prepared to handle the crisis that has been shunted to it.
More than 17,000 migrants have entered Croatia since Wednesday, and were essentially trapped there, having been blocked fromHungary, sent packing from Serbia and unable to move on to Slovenia. The migrants have become a sloshing tide of humanity, left to flow wherever the region’s conflicting and constantly changing border controls channel them.
Along the roads of eastern Croatia on Friday, the migrants’ detritus — abandoned blankets, torn clothing, empty cans of tuna — littered the highways. On the side of a road outside the border town of Tovarnik, Croatia, three young Iraqi men said they had been stranded for two excruciating days.
“It was crowded, there was no food, no transport and nowhere to go,” said one of them, Ibrahim Yusuf, 25, a construction worker from Baghdad. He said he was considering returning to Iraq and asked a reporter for directions back to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.
Even while the surge of migrants was merely transiting the region, starting several weeks ago, it overwhelmed tiny Macedonia, which declared a state of emergency. Now, however, it has become clearer that the migrants face fast-rising barriers to passing through the Balkans en route preferred destinations like Germany or Sweden.
The shifting of the crisis to the Balkans has added a whole new dynamic to the crisis, threatening to reopen old wounds and distrust. The masses of migrants and refugees are struggling through the clutch of countries that once formed Yugoslavia, until the wars of the 1990s bloodily broke the former Communist state apart.
As hundreds of refugees continued to stream into Croatia on Friday, the government announced that it would close its borders with Serbia. Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said his country was overwhelmed, and Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic had a message for the migrants: “Don’t come here anymore. This is not the road to Europe.”
The remarks were revealing of the tensions the migrants are now sowing among nations with weak economies, uncertain futures in Europe, creaking welfare states and deep wounds from the past. Those factors are hobbling the region’s ability to respond to a crisis that even richer nations in Europe have struggled to address.
On the surface, the countries of the former Yugoslavia, whose bloody disintegration shocked the world, would seem naturally sympathetic to the plight of refugees, and indeed the outpouring of sympathy and aid in recent days has been notable.
The exodus resulting from war and suffering in the former Yugoslavia presented Europe with what was then its biggest refugee crisis since World War II. By 1992, some 2.3 million people had fled, making the sight of refugees fleeing a daily and visceral occurrence.
But after gaining independence, countries in the region have struggled to bounce back — the average gross monthly wage in Serbia is 518 euros, about $585, while unemployment hovers at about 18 percent, according to the government statistics office.
Such realities have left the people of the Balkans the “have-nots” of Europe, and now reluctant to accommodate the thousands of refugees who have even less than them.
“We have much empathy in the region for migrants but countries across the region are poor, their institutions are not yet developed, and most states can barely deal with the daily problems of government, nevermind a migration crisis,” said Sead Numanovic, a former editor in chief of Avaz, a leading Bosnian newspaper. “These countries just don’t have the capacity.”
The situation in many Balkan nations is so difficult that many of those seeking asylum in Germany come from Serbia, Albania and Kosovo. This has pushed Germany to have these countries declared “safe” by the European Union so that Germany can immediately reject any of their citizens applying for asylum.
In the spring, the German government began a campaign to discourage the tens of thousands Kosovars from coming. Nearly 34,000 Kosovars applied for asylum between January and August.
The response in the Balkans has also been complicated by the fact that several countries such as Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bosnia, buffeted by economic hardship, corruption and weak institutions, have not yet been accepted into the European Union.
In Bosnia, which is bracing for as many as 10,000 migrants, the country is so hobbled by strong residual nationalism among its disparate ethnic groups that it can barely govern itself.
“The Balkans is an area that has not recovered fully from the wars in the 1990s and the countries of the region remain in limbo in terms of European integration,” said Danilo Turk, former president of Slovenia and a former United Nations assistant secretary general for political affairs.
Countries are also loath to be lectured about showing solidarity with refugees by the European Union, where Hungary, a member, has built a 109-mile razor wire fence to keep migrants out.
President Tomislav Nikolic of Serbia on Friday railed at members of the bloc for their hypocrisy, selfishness and lack of leadership in the face of the migration crisis. He said it was “absurd” that Serbia respected European standards more than those who are members and who are now “almost out of control — without receiving any criticism, advice, or order from Brussels.”
In a region long plagued by bloody conflicts over land, it is hard enough to police borders where regional rivalries still remain.Slovenia, the first former Yugoslav nation to join the European Union in 2004, and Croatia, which joined in 2013, cannot agree where Croatia ends and Slovenia begins — a dispute that dates to Yugoslavia’s collapse.
Slovenia is part of the Schengen accord that allows freedom of movement among member states; Croatia is not. Macedonia and Greece have battled over who has claims to the name Macedonia.
Viktor Orban said migrants entering Hungary in their thousands in the past weeks had “rebelled” against his police force, and order had to be restored.
Aid workers have been telling of “abysmal” conditions for refugees at a camp on the Hungarian-Serbian border.
Video footage has emerged of people being thrown bags of food at the camp in the town of Roszke.
Hungary has struggled to cope with some 150,000 migrants that have crossed its borders so far this year, en route from Greece to countries in northern and western Europe.
There have been tensions between the authorities and migrants, at border areas and key railway stations.
Hungary has insisted it is trying to fulfil its obligations as an EU member and register all new arrivals, but its attempts to control the flow – such as building a fence along its border with Serbia and staging border protection exercises – have proved controversial.
But, Mr Orban warned that from 15 September, tougher immigration laws would take effect and anyone crossing the border illegally could expect to be arrested.
He praised the police for doing a “remarkable” job “without force” in the face of unco-operative migrants who, he said, had “rebelled against Hungarian legal order”.
BBC correspondents and producers covering the migrant crisis on Twitter
Anna Holligan at Roszke on the Hungarian border: “Unusual scenes… #refugees crossing in front of soldiers, suspect might not be the way next week #Hungary”
Manveen Rana at Roszke: “A man held his baby out of the window shouting “oxygen, oxygen”. A guard shouted at him to get back in again”
Bethany Bell in Nickelsdorf, Austria: “Austrian army putting up tents at the border”
Wietske Burema at the Macedonia-Greek border: “Drilling a channel for a drinking water pipe for refugees at the border of Greece & Macedonia”
Elsewhere on Friday:
The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia again rejected the European Commission’s proposed mandatory quota system, sharing out 160,000 asylum seekers a year between 23 of the EU’s 28 members. Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said countries “should keep control over the number” of refugees they could accept
432,761 people have entered Europe via Mediterranean routes, via Italy or Greece, so far this year, reports the International Organization for Migration, more than double the total for the whole of 2014
Germany has put 4,000 troops on standby to help with the unprecedented influx of refugees, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen tells German media
There is a bottleneck of more than 10,000 people at Hungary’s border with Austria. Existing shelters in the area are full and the army is putting up more tents. Some migrants have begun walking towards Vienna
A key point of tension in Hungary has been at a refugee reception centre in Roszke, where the authorities have been taking many migrants newly arrived from Serbia.
Scenes from inside the camp were revealed in video footage filmed by Michaela Spritzendorfer, the wife of an Austrian Green party politician who was delivering aid to the camp, and Klaus Kufner, a journalist and activist.
Ms Spritzendorfer said it was about 20:00, and police were throwing plastic bags containing food to around 100 people, including the elderly and the very young.
“These people have been on a terrible tour for three months,” she told the BBC.
“Most of them have been across the sea now and on the boat and through the forest and they’ve gone through terrible things and we, as Europe, we keep them there in camps like animals.”
At the scene: Anna Holligan, BBC News, Roszke
The Hungarian refugee camps have become humiliating holding zones for the thousands trying to cross the country’s borders. Journalists are banned from entering, but images shared by human rights groups and refugees are disturbing.
The Hungarian government has not yet commented, but the images will fuel the allegations that Hungary is failing to meet the minimum standards for the treatment of migrants, as laid out in the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Council of Europe has reminded member states that people should not be treated like prisoners.
Many of the people I’ve spoken to, from Raqqa, Idlib and Homs have become numb to violence in Syria, but their treatment in what is supposed to be a place of refuge is hard to bear.
Another aid worker, Irish volunteer Patrick Quirke, told the BBC that people were being kept in cages, guard dogs were running free and “from what I was told the food is very sparse, the conditions are cold, the children were cold and they weren’t being provided with any heating”.
Human Rights Watch said migrants were being kept in “abysmal” conditions at two detention centres in Roszke, lacking food and medical care. The group quoted two migrants who described the conditions as only fit for animals.
Hungarian police have said they will investigate the scenes from inside the camp.
A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.