Clashes with police follow moves by desperate refugees to break through a border gate, as others make their way to Croatia
Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the second world war entered a new phase on Wednesday as hundreds of trapped refugees briefly broke through a border gate on the now-blocked Hungarian border, leading to frenzied clashes with Hungarian police, while hundreds of others forged a new route through Croatia.
Hungarian riot police fired teargas and water cannon across the border with Serbia after frustrated crowds, who had gathered there in their thousands when Hungary closed its frontier on Tuesday, tried to burst through a gate that connects the two countries. Hungary’s actions were met with fury by the Serbian government, which said its northern neighbours had no right to fire into Serbian territory.
Serbia’s prime minister accused Hungary of “brutal” and “non-European” behaviour and urged the European Union to respond. “We will not allow anyone to humiliate us. I call on the European Union to react, for its members to behave in line with European values,” Aleksandar Vucic told Serbian state television. “If the EU does not react, we will find a way to protect our borders and European values as well,” he said.
Amnesty International reported that at least seven children had been injured in the chaos, one sustaining a head wound and another blinded by pepper spray. Hungary said 20 policemen had been hurt. An official said they had detained 29 migrants during clashes and described one of them as an “identified terrorist”, without expanding further.
Tensions boiled over after thousands of refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan began arriving at the Horgoš border crossing between Serbia and Hungary in the hours after Budapest finally sealed it following months of threats to do so. For many refugees, whose understanding of how to navigate Europe is largely gleaned from the more than 170,000 people who had successfully transited through Hungary since the start of the year, the move came as a shock.
Frustrations were amplified further when a handful of Syrians who were subsequently allowed into Hungary to claim asylum had their applications rejected within minutes, seemingly without a proper assessment of their individual cases and backgrounds.
The tipping point came after an Iraqi refugee, one of 60 who was caught trying to breach the new border fence in separate incidents on Tuesday, was convicted in a specially convened Hungarian court. He was the first to be prosecuted under new Hungarian laws enacted this week that criminalise the act of crossing the fence.
A few hours after his expedited conviction, a few miles to the south of the courthouse in Horgoš, crowds kicked in the gate to the official border crossing. Documenting the scenes on the ground, Amnesty’s head of crisis response, Tirana Hassan, said the chaos was an indictment of Europe’s unjust response to the refugee crisis, which governments have largely tried to contain with a series of border closures rather than offering refugees safe and free passage to the continent.
“Things are at boiling point,” Hassan said as a wounded woman was carried past her. “This is a clear message that Hungary and the EU need to find real solutions to the refugee crisis. Keeping people in limbo will only make it worse.”
A temporary pressure valve emerged on Wednesday on Serbia’s border with Croatia, after Croatia’s prime minister, Zoran Milanović, condemned Hungary’s border closure and promised to help speed the flow of refugees through his country if necessary. “We are ready to accept and direct those people,” Milanović said, claiming that people “will be able to pass through Croatia and we are working intensively to enable that”.
Serbia then began bussing refugees arriving at its southern border with Macedonia straight to the town of Šid, close to its western border with Croatia. Others headed there by public bus and taxi from the Hungarian border, and by mid-afternoon a steady of flow of people were marching through the flat farmland from Šid towards Croatia. The Croatian police were waiting for them, with vans parked in the fields ready to drive refugees into Tovarnik, the first town on the Croatian side.
In what has become a familiar, harrowing scene, there were old men limping through the fields, parents walking with children on their shoulders, and a woman in a wheelchair. Some admitted they were entering an unknown, just as the first few Syrians who crossed into Hungary a year ago did so without knowledge of whether it would work.
While Croatia said it would aid people’s transit, Slovenia – the next country along the route – said it would make people apply for asylum, even though it is not a desired destination for most refugees. For its part, the Hungarian government said it could build another border fence along its shared border with Croatia. The final domino to fall was Austria, which lies beyond Slovenia and whose government said it could implement border checks along its Slovenian border.
To add to the uncertainty, Croatian mine experts warned that there remained around 2 sq km of live landmines on the Serbian border. Miljenko Vahtaric, assistant director at the Croatia Mine Action Centre, told the Guardian: “We have marked all these areas on our maps – but unfortunately refugees don’t have any means to get these maps. So there is always the possibility that somebody could enter these suspected hazardous areas and get wounded or even killed.”
Confronted with these myriad problems, refugees walking into Croatia said it was worth the risk. “We just heard about this route,” said Mohamed Ahmed, a 26-year-old Syrian doctor from Deir Ezzor, as he strode towards Croatia with his older sister Noor and younger brother Ali. “We thought we should check it out immediately, see if it is a route or not. It’s not difficult for people who are fleeing from terrible conditions to do it.”
A few hundred metres behind him, Ahmed Riad, a 58-year-old Iraqi from Islamic State-controlled Samarrat, limped along in flip-flops. He first went to Croatia as a tourist in 1982, and remembered the blue buildings of the university. Now, 33 years later, he was returning as a refugee, and his first sight was a thin blue line of police. “The police are waiting for us?” Riad asked his friends. “Will they send us back?”
And without knowing the answer, he walked across the latest frontier of the European migration crisis, into Croatia. “It’s terrible,” were his last words before leaving Serbia, after being asked his opinion on Europe’s treatment of refugees. “They must accept us. They must help us.”
Source: The Guardian