The migrants, mostly from poor or war-torn countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, have streamed into Croatia since Wednesday, after Hungary blocked what had been the main route with a metal fence and riot police at its border with Serbia.
“We cannot register and accommodate these people any longer,” Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told a news conference in the capital Zagreb.
“They will get food, water and medical help, and then they can move on. The European Union must know that Croatia will not become a migrant ‘hotspot’. We have hearts, but we also have heads.”
The arrival of 13,000 in the space of 48 hours, many crossing fields and 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 and left it scrambling to respond.
A record 473,887 refugees and 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 and 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 common 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.
Despite Hungary’s hardline stance, it did take in some migrants on Friday that Croatia expelled. Ferried to the border in buses, they were watched by police and soldiers as they were transferred onto other buses across the border in Hungary, where police said they would be registered.
“TIME TO DEAL DIFFERENTLY”
While Zagreb made welcoming statements earlier this week, Milanovic said he had called a session of Croatia’s National Security Council and that it was time to deal with the problem differently. The president has told the military to be ready if called on to help 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.
“We are so exhausted,” said Hikmat, a bare-footed 32-year-old Syrian woman from Damascus, after a journey, like many others, by sea and then through the Balkans to the border between the two former Yugoslav republics.
She said she had been travelling for two months with her son, and added: “Look at me. I just want to get anywhere where we will be safe.”
Some kept travelling and reached tiny EU member Slovenia overnight. Many did so by evading the police and trekking through fields or travelling by train, exasperated by Europe’s confused response to the crisis.
“I didn’t expect such a reaction from Europe… They first open the doors then they close them. They punish the people,” Syrian migrant Dara Jaffar said at the Tovarnik railway station.
SLOVENIA SAYS NO CORRIDOR
Worried by the situation, Slovenia stopped all rail traffic on the main line from Croatia and said there was “no basis on which we could form a corridor” for migrants to pass through en route to western Europe.
Unlike Croatia, Slovenia is a member of Europe’s Schengen zone of border-free travel, an important goal for refugees to reach. With around 1,000 migrants expected to enter the country in the next 24 hours, Slovenia plans to abide by EU rules by receiving asylum requests but returning illegal migrants.
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 and Syrian migrants, waiting for trains to Zagreb, fought with rocks and sticks at a ticket office.
Rocks, smashed bottles and broken sticks littered the ground. A handful of police in ordinary uniforms tried to restore control.
Relations between EU states have also been damaged, with several suspending the Schengen rules to restore emergency border controls to slow the flow.
Despite criticism by rights groups and some EU officials, Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, said his country was extending the fence along its southern border with Serbia to the Croatian section.
Serbia warned its neighbours against shutting down the main arteries between them, saying it “will seek to protect our economic and every other interest before international courts.”
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 and encouraging the overland surge by suspending EU rules to announce in August it would take in Syrian refugees wherever they enter the EU.
German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel renewed a threat that countries that do not help in the migrant crisis will be deprived of EU funds.
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 and coherent European response to this crisis. Time is running out,” Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, said in Geneva.