Migrants inundate new EU crisis hotspot Croatia

Eric Randolph
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Policemen stand guard as migrants wait at a railway station near the official border crossing between Serbia and Croatia on September 17, 2015

Policemen stand guard as migrants wait at a railway station near the official border crossing between Serbia and Croatia on September 17, 2015 (AFP Photo/)

Tovarnik (Croatia) (AFP) - Croatia on Thursday became the latest hotspot in Europe's migrant crisis, with thousands of new arrivals bound for northern Europe overwhelming local authorities as the EU's president called an emergency summit next week.

There were emotional scenes in eastern Croatia late Thursday as local people came to hand out food to migrants finally departing after a long wait near the Serbian border, at the end of a day which saw at least 8,900 migrants enter the country, according to the interior ministry.

Hungary meanwhile came under heavy criticism for its treatment of migrants at its own border with Serbia on Wednesday, when riot police fired tear gas and water cannon during several hours of clashes with rampaging migrants angry at being blocked from entering.

UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said Hungarian government policy was apparently being guided by "xenophobic and anti-Muslim views", while Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said: "This torture and non-European behaviour must stop."

Hungary sealed off its border with Serbia this week, cutting off a key route into the EU used this year by more than 200,000 migrants, many of them fleeing violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Migrants are now diverting to Croatia, with authorities bracing for 20,000 arrivals in the next two weeks.

Croatia has said it will let people pass through freely on their way to other EU countries -- but Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic warned his country's resources for dealing with the influx are "limited".

"I neither want to nor can stop these people," Hina news agency quoted him as saying.

"If we can, we will register them; if there will be more of them, we will not be able to register them. We will do our best, but I can not guarantee that we will be able to do so."

The pressure is on the Croatian government to mobilise mass transport now that it is becoming a major migrant thoroughfare towards northern Europe.

Several hundred people were finally on their way to the Croatian capital Zagreb late Thursday after a chaotic day in which thousands of people were trapped for hours in the baking sun at a small rural train station at Tovarnik near the border, waiting for transport.

There were manic scenes at as people barged their way onto the evening train at nearby Ilaca. Elderly women and babies had to be pulled out from the crush, though the situation calmed as people realised there was enough space onboard.

Local women showed up with food, water and baby supplies, and there were emotional farewells as the train finally pulled away, with cries of "We love you!" from the departing migrants. Croatian girls made heart signs with their hands and wiped away tears.

- Hungary hits back at criticism -

Hungary angrily rejected a growing chorus of criticism of its handling of Wednesday's clashes which left 14 police injured.

Neighbours Greece, Serbia and Croatia joined the UN in blasting Hungary's use of water cannon and tear gas against migrants as "unacceptable".

But Hungary's Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto rejected the world's reading of the events as "bizarre", saying that "aggressive" migrants had been responsible for the violent clashes with police by throwing stones, sticks and plastic bottles.

"Hungary will defend its borders no matter what outrageous criticism it gets from whomever in the international political elite," Szijjarto said.

- Crisis EU summit -

In Brussels, EU president Donald Tusk said all 28 leaders of the bloc would next Wednesday hold an emergency summit on the continent's worst migration crisis since World War II.

The bloc is bitterly split over how to fairly distribute the migrants across the EU, and there are fears that Europe's vaunted Schengen agreement, which allows borderless travel between member states, could be in jeopardy.

Germany, Austria and Slovakia have all reimposed identity checks on parts of their borders, and Poland and the Netherlands are considering whether to follow suit.

Under a draft law seen by AFP on Thursday, Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere is seeking to toughen asylum laws by sending migrants back to the first European Union country they reached and by reducing benefits.

If passed, the law would represent a major reversal on Germany's easing of asylum laws for Syrians, a factor contributing to the massive influx that has left Germany expecting up to a million asylum seekers this year.

Meanwhile, in a sign of growing pressure on the EU's external borders, Bulgaria began deploying 1,000 troops to the Turkish frontier where several hundred people, mostly Syrians, spent a third day stuck near the border city Edirne.

Refugees see the land route through Edirne as offering a better chance of survival than boarding an overcrowded boat from Turkey to Greek islands, a route that some 300,000 people have taken this year.

French President Francois Hollande said late Thursday that he would use the emergency EU summit to ask Turkey to keep Syrian refugees on its soil until the neighbouring country's war ends.

The EU must "work with Turkey" in order to "ensure that those who are in Turkey can stay there, work there and have all the resources they need to wait until the situation in Syria is resolved", Hollande told reporters in Modena, Italy.