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'I'm Doing it to Survive': Crossing the Croatian Border With Hundreds of Migrants

VICE News accompanied hundreds of disorientated migrants through dark cornfields between Serbia and Croatia, desperately seeking a new route west, as more countries close their borders.
September 18, 2015, 9:45am
Imagen por Pete Kiehart

As night fell on Thursday, hundreds of migrants continued to trek through near-pitch black turnip and cornfields between Serbia and Croatia, desperately seeking a new route west, even as Croatia attempted to seal its borders to more arrivals.

Throughout the day, buses carrying people from Syria, Afghanistan, and other poor and war-torn countries stopped just shy of the Serbian border where Croatian officials waved arrivals through the back-route between the two countries, without checking documents.

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More than 11,000 people have made this crossing since Hungary closed its border with Serbia with a barbed wire fence on Tuesday, the vast majority using the illegal passage between checkpoints with the seeming blessing of the overwhelmed Croatian authorities.

Photo by Pete Kiehart

The disorientated walkers — including young children, the elderly, and disabled — did not know what country they were in. Deposited on the highway by buses arriving from Serbia's borders with Macedonia and Hungary, people made a more than two-mile hike through the countryside, thus circumventing official border crossings.

A lack of information about where they can travel, and how, has affected the journeys of hundreds of migrants, many of whom have been traveling for days or weeks and sleeping on the roadside without access to hot meals, showers, or proper medical attention.

Related: UN Calls Hungary 'Xenophobic' as Stranded Migrants now Head for Croatia

"Where are we? Croatia or Serbia? What's after this? Slovenia… and then is it Austria?" asked Ahmed, a 22-year-old technician student from Damascus lugging a suitcase. "Will they let us into Slovenia, into Austria?"

Some were anxious that the latest route was not safe after warnings on social media that much of the border between Croatia and Serbia is still littered with unexploded devices from the war during the 1990s. "Can we walk this way? Are there mines in the fields? We have children with us," one man called out as he led his family through the field.

Photo by Harriet Salem

Others gave cheered "freedom" and gave the thumbs up sign against the sunset sky when they realized that during their walk they had crossed from Serbia into the European Union (EU), but they said they had no idea what lay ahead of them.

"Everywhere we turn there is a new obstacle, a new block, so we expect something bad ahead for sure" said 55-year-old Saad, as he hobbled through the freshly ploughed field on a crutch. "We keep walking and walking but no one knows where we are going to."

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Many of the migrants hope to reach Germany, Austria, and other Western European countries. After initially welcoming the refugees, however, Croatia has now indicated that it may now move to stymie the passage into the EU's Schengen zone of passport-free travel, which starts in neighboring Hungary and Slovenia.

Croatia cannot and will not accept the burden of thousands of migrants any longer, nor register, or accommodate them, Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said on Friday.

Photo by Pete Kiehart

Milanovic said he had called a session of Croatia's National Security Council and that it was time to deal with the problem in a different way.

"We cannot register and accommodate these people any longer," he told a news conference. "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."

"Croatia will not be able to receive more people," Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic told reporters in Tovarnik on Thursday even as migrants continued to pour into the small railway town by the border.

"When we said corridors are prepared [for migrants], we meant a corridor from Tovarnik to Zagreb [the country's capital]" he added, suggesting Croatia would not simply let migrants head north to Slovenia.

"Don't come here any more," he added. "Stay in refugee centers in Serbia and Macedonia and Greece. This is not the road to Europe. Buses can't take you there. It's a lie."

Photo by Pete Kiehart

Scenes in the Croatian border town Tovarnik were chaotic as migrants who hiked through the no-man's land piled up at the railway station into the night waiting for buses onwards to the country's capital Zagreb, with the hope of eventually reaching neighboring Slovenia.

With insufficient transportation to handle the numbers arriving into Croatia hundreds of people spent the night sleeping on the roadside outside Tovarnik's train station, some near passed out with exhaustion. Ambulances treated some of the sick while police officers used megaphones to plead with the crowd to move back.

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"It's too many people, it's just too many people, we can't control the situation," a local police officer, Ivan, who did not want to give his second name, told VICE News. "It's out of control. Where are we meant to put these people?"

Photo by Pete Kiehart

As buses arrived into the early hours of morning police formed a human barricade to try and hold back a surging crowd. Families clung to each other in a bid not to be separated after law enforcement officials called for women and children to be allowed to travel first.

The EU has been plunged into chaos as hundreds of thousands of people attempt to enter the block of 28 countries to open asylum claims, the biggest global movement of people since World War II.

Related: Refugee Air: We Spoke to the Guy Who Plans to Fly Syrians to Sweden

On Thursday, Manfred Schmidt, the head of Germany's refugee office, handed in his resignation amid mounting criticism of the government's handling of the migrant crisis.

Photo by Harriet Salem

His organization's decision in August to change its guidelines to allow refugees from Syria into Germany regardless of where they entered the EU has been widely seen as triggering the movement of tens of thousands of asylum seekers westward in the last few weeks.

Police said the number of refugees arriving in Germany on Wednesday had more than doubled to 7,266 from 3,442 the previous day. The country has now reintroduced border checks on its southern border with police focusing on the Austrian frontier.

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With routes into the EU being slowly locked down by frazzled authorities on the peripheries of the bloc a bottleneck is being created in the Balkan countries.

Related: Video Shows Hungarian Police Firing Tear Gas and Water Cannon at Migrants

Photo by Pete Kiehart

In Brussels, Johannes Hahn, the EU's commissioner in charge of enlargement, called on member states to remain calm and try to fight the crisis together. "The Western Balkans must not become a parking lot for refugees. That would be a grave geostrategic mistake," he said. "Cool heads on all sides are all needed now, not harsh rhetoric."

Mohammed Sawaad, a dentist from Homs in Syria, said he hoped his trek through the Croatian fields was another step towards a better life for him and his five year-old daughter. "We can either die in our beds under the bombs or die in these fields dreaming of a free future," he told VICE News. "It's not a choice, I'm not doing this for a fast car or more money, I'm doing it to survive."

Reuters contributed to this report.