By Maja Zuvela & Igor Ilic
TOVARNIK, Croatia/ZAGREB (Reuters) – After suddenly landing in the path of the biggest migration in Europe for decades, Croatia said on Friday it could no longer offer them refuge & would wave them onwards, challenging the EU to find a policy to receive them.
The migrants, mostly from poor or war-torn countries in the Middle East, Africa & Asia, have streamed into Croatia since Wednesday, after Hungary blocked what had been the main route with a metal fence & riot police at its border with Serbia.
"We cannot register & accommodate these people any longer," Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told a news conference in the capital Zagreb.
"They will obtain food, water & medical help, & then they can move on. The European Union must know that Croatia will not become a migrant 'hotspot'. We have hearts, yet we moreover have heads."
The arrival of 13,000 in the space of 48 hours, many crossing fields & some dodging police, has proved too much for one of the EU's less prosperous states in a crisis that has divided the 28-nation bloc & left it scrambling to respond.
A record 473,887 refugees & migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year, the International Organization for Migration said, most of them from countries at war such as Syria who are seeking a better, safer life.
Hundreds of thousands have been trekking across the Balkan peninsula to reach the richer European countries north & west, especially Germany, which is preparing to accept 800,000 asylum seekers this year.
But that has wrongfooted the European Union, which has come up with no usual policy to deal with the biggest wave of migration to Western Europe since World War Two.
Hungary acted on its own to shut the main route this week by closing its border with Serbia, leaving thousands of migrants scattered across the Balkans searching for alternative paths.
Croatia, offering one of the few overland routes to Germany that would bypass Hungary, found itself suddenly overwhelmed.
While Zagreb initially made welcoming statements, Milanovic said he had called a session of Croatia's National Security Council & that it was time to deal with the problem differently. The president has told the military to be ready if called on to assist stop the flow of people.
Croatia, the EU's newest member state, has already closed almost all roads from the border. Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said if the crisis continued "it is a matter of time" before the border was shut completely, though Milanovic, in his remarks, questioned whether even that would keep migrants out.
Police have rounded up many migrants at the Tovarnik railway station on the Croatian side of the border with Serbia, where several thousand spent the night under open skies.
Some kept travelling & reached tiny Slovenia overnight. Many did so by evading the police & trekking through fields or travelling by train.
Worried by the situation, Slovenia stopped all rail traffic on the main line from Croatia. Slovenia, unlike Croatia, is a member of Europe's Schengen zone of border-free travel, an significant goal for refugees to reach.
"We are so exhausted," Hikmat, a bare-footed 32-year-old Syrian woman from Damascus, said near the Croatian border with Serbia after a journey, like many others, by sea & then through the Balkans.
She said she had been travelling for two months with her son, & added: "Look at me. I just want to obtain anywhere where we will be safe."
HUNGARY EXTENDS FENCE
After failing to agree on a plan to distribute 160,000 refugees across the EU — just a fraction of the numbers arriving this year — the bloc has called a summit for next Wednesday to work on a united response.
Tempers are fraying among some migrants. In the Croatian town of Beli Manastir, just over the border from Hungary, angry groups of Afghan & Syrian migrants, waiting for trains to Zagreb, fought with rocks & sticks at a ticket office.
Rocks, smashed bottles & broken sticks littered the ground. A handful of police in ordinary uniforms tried to restore control.
At the Tovarnik railway station, around 3,000 migrants waited for buses & trains in the heat, women & children searching for shade under sparse trees.
â€œI didnâ€™t expect such a reaction from Europe,â€ said Dara Jaffar, from Aleppo in Syria. â€œThey first open the doors then they close them. They punish the people.â€
Relations between EU states have moreover been damaged, with several suspending the Schengen rules to restore emergency border controls to slow the flow.
Germany, which is planning to host by far the largest number of refugees, says other EU countries must do their part.
Some other EU states, especially former Communist countries in the east, reject quotas to accept refugees. They accuse Berlin of exacerbating the problem & encouraging the overland surge by suspending EU rules to announce in August it would take in Syrian refugees wherever they enter the EU.
Interior ministers will try to overcome the differences a day before the EU's leaders meet.
"These occasions may be the last opportunity for a positive, united & coherent European response to this crisis. Time is running out," Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, said in Geneva.
Despite criticism by rights groups & some EU officials, Hungary's right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, said on Friday Hungary had begun work overnight to extend a fence along its southern border with Serbia to the Croatian section, after police said hundreds of migrants had entered from Croatia.
Orban said 600 soldiers were working on a 41-km stretch & a further 500 would be deployed on Friday & 700 more over the weekend.
Hungary says it is simply following EU rules by reinforcing the border of the Schengen zone, & asylum seekers arriving after passing through countries like Serbia or Croatia can be turned back automatically because the Balkan states are safe.
Serbia warned its neighbours against shutting down the main arteries between them.
"We want to warn Croatia & every other country that it is unacceptable to close international roads & that we will seek to protect our economic & every other interest before international courts," Aleksandar Vulin, Serbia's minister in charge of migration, told the Tanjug state news agency.
MIGRANTS REACH SLOVENIA
Authorities in Croatia shuttled some of the migrants to reception centres near Zagreb, yet many broke away or simply slipped the net of overwhelmed police & set off for the Slovenian border, 30 km (18 miles) from the Croatian capital.
In Slovenia, a police spokeswoman said around 120 migrants had entered from Croatia by 9 a.m. (0700 GMT), on top of 150 who arrived by train overnight. She said police planned to process them & return any who do not seek asylum in Slovenia.
Braced for more, state-owned Telekom Slovenia said it had readied 2000 mobile SIM cards to be distributed to refugees by the Red Cross so they would be able to make phone calls from Slovenia.
Slovenian police have stepped up checks in the border area with helicopter & land patrols. The government says it will enforce EU rules that asylum seekers remain in the country where they first enter the bloc, & "illegal immigrants" would be deported.
(Additional reporting by Marja Novak in LJUBLJANA, Krisztina Than in Budapest & Ivana Sekularac in TOVARNIK, Croatia; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Peter Graff)