'Heads as well as hearts': Croatia says it can take no more migrants

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon
Croatia Is No Longer Taking in Refugees

After suddenly landing in the path of the biggest migration in Europe for decades, Croatia said on Friday it could no longer offer them refuge and would wave them onwards, challenging the EU to find a policy to receive them.

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.

See images of migrants in Croatia:

15 PHOTOS
Croatia closes border with Serbia, migrant crisis
See Gallery
'Heads as well as hearts': Croatia says it can take no more migrants
People walk through a field in order to get to Serbia's border with Croatia close to the town of Sid, Serbia, Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. Croatia on Friday closed all border crossings with Serbia except one in an effort to control the flow of migrants which has strained authorities. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)
People crowd a bus provided by the Croatian government, after pushing through police lines in Tovarnik, Croatia, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. Hundreds of migrants have pushed through police lines in the eastern Croatian town of Tovarnik, with people trampling and falling on each other amid the chaos, as more than 2,000 men, women and children were stuck at the local train station for hours in blazing heat and sun on Thursday, waiting to board trains and buses for transport to refugee centers. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)
Migrants rest in a train at the railway station in Beli Manastir, near Hungarian border, northeast Croatia, early Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. Croatia has suddenly become the latest hotspot in the 1,000-mile plus exodus toward Western Europe after Hungary sealed off its border Tuesday with a razor-wire fence and then used tear gas, batons and water cannons to keep the migrants out. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
A Syrian refugee man plays with his daughter after spending night near an abandoned military barrack in Beli Manastir, near Hungarian border, northeast Croatia, Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. Croatian police say some 13,300 migrants have entered the country from Serbia since the first groups started arriving more than two days ago. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
SID, SERBIA - SEPTEMBER 16: Migrants walk the last few kilometres from Serbia to Croatia opening up a new route to northern EU countries on September 16, 2015 in Sid, Serbia. Hundreds of migrants crossed into Croatia from Serbia hoping to reach Germany a day after Hungary sealed its border with Serbia. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
TOVARNIK, CROATIA - SEPTEMBER 17: Migrants force their way through police lines at Tovarnik station to board a train bound for Zagreb on September 17, 2015 in Tovarnik, Croatia. Migrants are now diverting to Croatia from Serbia after Hungary closed its border with Serbia, with the majority of them trying to reach Germany amid divisions within the European Union over how to manage the ongoing crisis. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
People lift two children that sit in a twin stroller as they try to get them to safety amid scuffles between migrants and Croatian police officers in Tovarnik, Croatia, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. Hundreds of migrants have pushed through police lines in the eastern Croatian town of Tovarnik, with people trampling and falling on each other amid the chaos, as more than 2,000 men, women and children were stuck at the local train station for hours in blazing heat and sun on Thursday, waiting to board trains and buses for transport to refugee centers. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)
A child cries as migrants try to board a bus, at the border between Serbia and Croatia, in Tovarnik, Croatia, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. Croatia has suddenly become the latest hotspot in the 1,000-mile plus exodus toward Western Europe after Hungary sealed off its border Tuesday with a razor-wire fence and then used tear gas, batons and water cannons to keep the migrants out. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)
People push through a police line in Tovarnik, Croatia, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. Hundreds of migrants have pushed through police lines in the eastern Croatian town of Tovarnik, with people trampling and falling on each other amid the chaos, as more than 2,000 men, women and children were stuck at the local train station for hours in blazing heat and sun on Thursday, waiting to board trains and buses for transport to refugee centers. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)
Children of refugees sleep at the Hungarian border with Serbia near the town of Horgos on September 16, 2015. Europe's 20-year passport-free Schengen zone appeared to be a risk of crumbling with Germany boosting border controls on parts of its frontier with France as migrants desperate to find a way around Hungary's border fence began crossing into Croatia. With a string of EU countries tightened frontier controls in the face of the unprecedented human influx, the cherished principle of free movement across borders -- a pillar of the European project -- seemed in grave jeopardy. AFP PHOTO / ARMEND NIMANI (Photo credit should read ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
A migrant mother carries her child as she arrives at the border between Serbia and Croatia near Tovarnik, eastern Croatia, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. The first groups of migrants have started arriving in Croatia - a new entry point into the European Union after Hungary sealed off its border with Serbia with massive coils of barbed wire. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Migrants arrive at the train station in Beli Manastir, near Hungarian border, northeast Croatia, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. Croatia has suddenly become the latest hotspot in the 1,000-mile plus exodus toward Western Europe after Hungary sealed off its border Tuesday with a razor-wire fence and then used tear gas, batons and water cannons to keep the migrants out. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
A girl cries at the "Horgos 2" border crossing into Hungary, near Horgos, Serbia, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. Thousands of migrants poured into Croatia on Thursday, setting up a new path toward Western Europe after Hungary used tear gas and water cannons to keep them out of its territory. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
People make their way through fields at the border between Serbia and Croatia near Tovarnik, Croatia, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. The first groups of migrants have started arriving in Croatia - a new entry point into the European Union after Hungary sealed off its border with Serbia with massive coils of barbed wire. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

"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 17,000 since Wednesday morning, 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 at least 1,000 migrants on Friday from Croatia. Ferried to the border in buses and by train, 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 traveling for two months with her son, and added: "Look at me. I just want to get anywhere where we will be safe."

Some kept traveling and reached tiny EU member Slovenia overnight. Many did so by evading the police and trekking through fields or traveling 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.

Worried by the situation, Slovenia stopped all rail traffic on the main line from Croatia. Late on Friday, Prime Minister Miro Cerar - reversing his earlier stance - said Slovenia might consider forming a "corridor" for migrants to pass via its territory to western Europe "if the pressure is too great".

Unlike Croatia, Slovenia is a member of Europe's Schengen zone of border-free travel, an important goal for refugees. With around 1,000 migrants expected to enter Slovenia in the next 24 hours, it has said it plans to abide by EU rules by receiving asylum requests but returning illegal migrants.

EMERGENCY EU SUMMIT

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.

Donald Tusk, who chairs EU summits, called on Friday for a credible EU migration policy and said member states must stop shifting responsibility onto their neighbors.

In a letter addressed to the 28 leaders ahead of the summit, Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, also urged them to provide donations to the World Food Program to help feed some 11 million refugees in Syria and the region.

Tempers are fraying among some migrants trekking across Europe.

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 neighbors 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 on Tuesday, a day before the summit of EU leaders.

"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.

(Additional reporting by Marja Novak in LJUBLJANA, Krisztina Than in Budapest, Ivana Sekularac in TOVARNIK, Croatia, Francois Murphy and Shadia Nasralla in Vienna, and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm, Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Peter Graff andGareth Jones)

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.

From Our Partners