Slovenia halts rail traffic to stop refugee inflow from Croatia

Police officers look at migrants sitting on the windows of a train at the railway station, near the Slovenian-Croatian border in Dobova, Brezice, on September 17, 2015. © Jure Makovec
Slovenia has stopped rail traffic at the border crossing with Croatia after a train carrying 200 refugees was intercepted in Dobova. The Balkan state vowed to shelter up to 5,000 asylum seekers. Some 8,000 people poured into Croatia in just two days and more are projected to arrive shortly.

Slovenia is the latest European country fielding a massive influx of refugees mostly fleeing war-torn Syria.

LIVE UPDATES: End of Schengen? EU countries toughen border control

On Thursday Slovenian police halted a train carrying some 200 refugees coming from Croatia. According to official statistics, this was the largest group of refugees that tried to enter the Balkan state since the crisis flared up in Europe so far. Slovenian police said that the migrants stopped at Dobova train station on the Slovenian side of the border would be returned to Croatia.

©  Jure Makovec

“We will return them to Croatia in the shortest time possible,” Anton Stubljar, head of the sector for state border and foreigners at the Novo Mesto police administration, told the media.

As a sign of “protection”, “solidarity” and “respect”, Slovenia is ready to provide shelter to up to 5,000 refugees, Slovenia’s ambassador to London Tadej Rupel told the Guardian.

“What we are emphasizing is that refugees and migrants need protection, our solidarity, compassion and respect. We are ready and committed to all the humanitarian needs of those who are migrating and for refugees,” Rupel said.

Some 2,000 people would be accommodated in buildings such as sports centers while another 3,000 in tented camps around the country, according to Rupel. But even hosting such capacity will require additional help from the government and “everyone who understands the human suffering of the people fleeing war-ravaged areas,” Slovenia’s Red Cross has said in a statement.

The Ljubljana-based organization has called on the people of Slovenia “to contribute according to their abilities and bring food or hygiene goods”.

© Antonio Bronic

For the majority of asylum seekers and migrants Slovenia is just the next stop on their long route to Western Europe with Germany being the most desirable destination for many. Some 7, 300 refugees have been registered crossing into Croatia by the country’s Interior Ministry as of Thursday in the last two days.

Earlier, Slovenia has said it would reintroduce border control with Hungary and informed the European Commission that starting Thursday its border will be closed for at least 10 days.

Hungary itself sealed its frontiers and closed border crossings from Serbia overnight on Monday after scuffles with police that used tear gas and water cannons. The use of force was met with fierce condemnation from other states and the UN.

“I was shocked to see how these refugees and migrants were treated. It’s not acceptable,” the UN’s secretary general Ban Ki-moon said a news conference.

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Croatia can’t receive more people – interior minister

Hungary’s closure of borders has interrupted the stream of asylum seekers, leaving thousands of people stranded and search for alternative routes such as via Croatia.

Croatia meanwhile said that such a massive influx of refugees is now coming from Serbia, that the country would have to close the border should more migrants cross from Serbia.

“Croatia will close its border with Serbia if we witness again 8,000 migrants entering the country in one day,” Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said on Thursday.

In response, Serbia threatened to sue “Croatia and any other country” if borders are closed.

“We want to warn Croatia and any other country that the closure of international roads is unacceptable and that we will request the protection of our economic and other interests in international courts,” Serbian Minister of Labor Aleksandar Vulin said, according to the Tanjug news outlet.

© Dado Ruvic

Croatia has provided buses for women and children bound for reception centers near Zagreb.

However, clashes broke out when police tried to board them, separating from their husbands and fathers.

“Only women and children are now allowed onto buses. My wife and child are gone and they (police) do not allow me to join them. My phone does not work,” an Iraqi from Baghdad told Reuters.

Crowds of refugees broke away from the police and occupied railway lines, with some sitting and some marching towards Zagreb.

“They want to take us to the camps, but we don't want that,” another man who was not named told the news agency.

In the capital Zagreb, riot police was deployed around one of the hotels where hundreds of refugees housed there began chanting "Freedom! Freedom!" and throwing rolls of toilet paper from balconies and windows.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic has asked Armed Forces Chief-of-Staff Gen. Drago Lovric to put the army on high alert in case there is a need to protect the country’s borders, HINA news agency reported Thursday.

“Croatia will not be able to receive more people,” Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic told reporters in Tovarnik on Thursday.

‘Unacceptable’ for Schengen candidate – Hungarian FM

On Thursday, Hungary that previously erected fences along some of its borderline, has accused Croatia of having "lost control" over the migrant flow after some 200 refugees were detained at the south border, where Budapest has no fences yet.

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Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto blamed Croatia for pushing asylum seekers to Hungary and Slovenia instead of registering and looking after them in accordance with European Union rules. He said it was “unacceptable” and proved that Croatia would not be ready to join the Schengen zone for several more years, Reuters reported.

European Council President Donald Tusk and EU leaders are expected to meet next Wednesday to discuss measures to be taken to handle the crisis at EU’s external borders and also help Turkey, where many of refugees arrive first, as well as other states along the route.

The EU's commissioner in charge of enlargement Johannes Hahn has called on member states to stay calm and unite in tackling the crisis.

“The Western Balkans must not become a parking lot for refugees. That would be a grave geostrategic mistake. Cool heads on all sides are all needed now, not harsh rhetoric,” he said on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, the European Parliament has approved the European Commission’s emergency proposal to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers from Italy (15,600 people), Greece (50,400) and Hungary (54,000) among EU member states. Coming on top of an earlier approved proposal to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers, the total number of refugees to be relocated stands now at 160,000.