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In Photos: Chaos in Croatia as Migrants and Refugees Get Stuck in Balkan Bottleneck

More than 20,000 migrants and refugees streamed into Croatia in less than 48 hours after Hungary sealed its border with Serbia on Thursday.
Photo par Harriet Salem

Chaos continued to reign across the European Union's peripheries on Saturday, with tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan attempting to find their way through a bottleneck of closed Balkan borders toward northern Europe.

More than 20,000 people streamed into Croatia in less than 48 hours after Hungary sealed its border with Serbia on Thursday, erecting a barbed wire fence and firing tear gas at migrants waiting on the border.


Most of the migrants and refugees have been processed in Croatia's capital Zagreb, where they were issued paperwork saying they must leave the country within 30 days. Croatia is only a stopping off point for most people, but they became stuck after Hungarian and Slovenian authorities attempted to stop people from using their countries as a corridor to Austria and Germany.

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Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News

In an attempt to stymie the flow, Croatia has now also closed its official border crossings with Serbia, but it seems unable to stop people crossing illegally through the porous fields and woodlands that separate the two countries.

On Saturday at Croatia's eastern border, Slovenian riot police raised their shields and grappled with migrants as hundreds of people attempted to surge through the metal barricades that separate the two countries.

Families, women, and children have slowly been allowed to pass through the Harmica crossing about 20 miles west of Zagreb for the last 24 hours, but tempers flared as families were separated and rumors spread that the police may close the route north once again.

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Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News

Once in Slovenia, migrants are technically inside the EU's open travel Schengen zone, though several countries, including Austria, have reintroduced border checks amid the crisis.

Lack of information and rapidly changing policies has fuelled panic among the refugees.


At the Harmica crossing, Iman, a 27-year-old newlywed who worked as a composer and had recently graduated from law school in Damascus, told VICE news that many people were "scared that the borders will close again."

"The Syrian people have lived through war, they are very traumatized. We cannot go back to Syria, we have spent days on the road and don't know if at the end we will have a home. Every day we are told something different — that this border is closed or open — and no one knows what is true anymore," he said.

Iman introduced his wife and joked, "This is our honeymoon, we married just two weeks ago so we have to have hope."

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Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News

Others clutched sobbing children caught in the middle of the fracas. One man begged for his heavily pregnant wife to pass through the barricade to escape the crush of humanity. On the other side of the line, police called over a megaphone for the crowd to move back to "stop children being hurt."

The border closures have sparked a diplomatic spat between Croatia and Hungary, with both sides accusing each other of shirking their responsibilities in the crisis.

On Friday night, Croatia began bussing thousands of refugees to the Hungarian border in a bid to "force" its neighbor to let people through, calling Hungary's response to the crisis "pathetic."

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Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News

"We cannot register and accommodate these people any longer," Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told reporters on Saturday. "There is no agreement with Hungary [to take the migrants]. We forced them, by sending people up there. And we'll keep doing it."

While Hungary has now allowed several bus loads to pass through the southeastern Beremend crossing, a train from Croatia carrying more than a 1,000 migrants across the border was seized on Friday night, and the passengers were arrested.

In response to the pressure, Hungary has accused Croatia of violating EU rules, and said it may move to stop the country from being allowed to join the Schengen zone.

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Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News

At a press conference in Budapest, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said that Croatia had "lied" and "violated Hungary's sovereignty."

"Instead of honestly making provision for the immigrants, it sent them straight to Hungary," he told reporters. "What kind of European solidarity is this? Once again, Hungary has been left in the lurch. We will defend the European Union, the borders of the Schengen zone, and we will defend Hungary in accordance with European rules."

Speaking to InfoRadio, a Hungarian media outlet, Antal Rogan a senior advisor to the Hungarian prime minister, said the crisis showed that Croatia was not ready to be part of Europe's open border zone. "If Croatia puts up its hands and says, 'No, I don't want to defend the borders,' then Hungary can only say that it isn't ready to join Schengen when the moment comes to decide," he said.


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Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News

Many of those who have made it through to Slovenia and Hungary are now hightailing it for Austria. More than 6,700 people have arrived at the country's border since midnight yesterday. Police there are reportedly requesting travel documents.

According to the International Organization for Migration, nearly half a million migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year, making this the largest movement of people across the continent since World War II.

Follow Harriet on Twitter: @HarrietSalem